The premise for the new indie flick Adam sounds like a recipe for disaster: white, cisgender, straight guy masquerades as a trans male in order to win the affections of a cisgender lesbian. But the film’s creators want you to know that it’s not what you think. The film, they contend, is a funny and subversive celebration of trans identity and a reflection of some of their lived experiences as part of the LGBTQ community.
Adam is based on a 2014 novel by Ariel Schrag, a cisgender lesbian who worked with director Rhys Ernst in developing a screenplay that would “function as both an insider movie for queer people and something that straight cis people could enter.” Ernst, who is transgender, produced and directed the Emmy award-winning series Transparent.
While the film has generally been well received, it has also been characterized as dangerous to the trans community. Some have even called for a boycott of the film, despite its inclusive cast and executive crew. According to the New York Times, approximately a third of the cast is transgender or nonbinary, while another third is cisgender and queer. “It employed so many trans people, and so it’s hard to hate on it,” admitted another filmmaker who spoke to the publication. “But it’s a film that shows another cis white male heterosexual doing what he needs to do to manipulate a woman.”
Ernst has been parrying much of the criticism, believing that a lot of the outrage is from people who haven’t actually seen the movie and are simply responding to the impressions they have gotten from the trailer and the plot description. But criticism has also come from figures who participated in the film.
An extra who goes by the name of Al has been outspoken about his feeling betrayed by Ernst and Schrag, asserting that he had been consistently misgendered on set by the crew and was unhappy that the title and narrative of the film had been hidden from him. He told Vulture that the wardrobe design subjected the extras to “things people weren’t comfortable with and didn’t suit their gender identity.” Another extra added that the crew “didn’t have a grasp on they/them pronouns at all’ and wondered why Adam had to be released in an era when trans people are just gaining some visibility in the media. “We have so many other stories to tell.”
Ernst has responded to some of these concerns publicly, expressing surprise that his extras had felt hurt by their experience on set. “I think people feel under attack right now because they are under attack,” he told Vulture.
As for the boycotts and criticism that the film has been receiving from the queer and trans community, he has held firm to his belief that he has created a valid film from a trans gaze, even if not every member of the trans community is ready for a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “We are tough on each other and I think it’s unfortunate and it’s overdone,” Ernst told the Daily Beast, expressing some of his own feelings of betrayal. “The sort of policing that happens within our communities has gone way too far. I talked to a lot of queer and trans young people, and a lot of them are afraid of stepping out from the pack or doing anything that could potentially draw any question or ire.”
Ultimately, Ernst understands the context of the film’s criticism. “Because of the long history of harmful and outright false depictions of trans lives, our community is rightfully distrustful of material that might add to this negative legacy,” Ernst told the Advocate. “However, I believe in the power of trans art and storytelling, even when it is challenging or uncomfortable. Creating trans art often requires difficult conversations, and I strive to show up, be present and responsible to this dialogue.”