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Taking the story of ‘Adam’ to heart

Asperger’s community says film will help others understand disorder

Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy star in “Adam,’’ which explores Asperger syndrome. Rose Byrne and Hugh Dancy star in “Adam,’’ which explores Asperger syndrome. (Julia Griner/Fox Searchlight)
By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / August 8, 2009

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Just a few weeks before the movie “Adam’’ opened in theaters, the film’s director, Max Mayer, and its two stars, Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne, visited Boston to host a sneak-preview screening.

The trio was nervous because it wasn’t a typical audience viewing the film that night. Most of the invited guests were affiliated with the Asperger’s Association of New England, which supports people with the neurological disorder that affects the way a person processes information - specifically, his or her social skills.

That’s what “Adam’’ is all about - a young man with Asperger syndrome, played by “Confessions of a Shopaholic’’ star Dancy, who falls for his unlucky-in-love neighbor, portrayed by “Damages’’ actress Byrne. As one might expect, a love story involving a character with a social disorder isn’t a smooth one. Dancy’s Adam doesn’t know when to hug and eats the same thing every day. He fails miserably at parties and begins screaming like a child when he realizes he has been told a white lie. Within the first 20 minutes of the film, Adam misses just about every social cue imaginable.

The screening in Boston was the first time the actors and director had shown the film to a group that represented the Asperger’s community. It was clear based on the number of people who showed up that, even if “Adam’’ didn’t set out to be a film that speaks on behalf of people with an often misunderstood neurological disorder, it has become just that. Despite the growing awareness of Asperger’s, there are few examples of the condition in the media. Save a few documentaries and an “America’s Next Top Model’’ contestant who had the syndrome, there isn’t much out there that shows what it means to have Asperger’s.

“Awareness is one of our missions and there’s nothing like a movie that does well for awareness,’’ said Dania Jekel, Asperger’s Association of New England’s executive director.

What has been an intense reception of “Adam’’ by the Asperger’s community makes sense to Mayer, who also wrote the film. He has a friend whose child has the disorder, and he used to work at a camp with children who, looking back, probably had the condition but were misdiagnosed at the time. Still, it was never Mayer’s mission to make a movie about Asperger’s. Mayer admitted after the screening that in his mind “Adam’’ was always supposed to be a simple love story. Giving a character Asperger’s was simply a good way to explore relationships in general. If his hero had trouble navigating social interaction and the strange rhetoric of dating, how would he succeed at love? And more important, is Adam so different than any other person struggling to find emotional intimacy?

“I wanted to represent [Asperger’s] well and I wanted it to be accurate, but it was sort of a means to an end,’’ Mayer explained in an interview after the screening.

Dancy also admitted that, as an actor, he stayed away from considering the implications of his portrayal of the disorder while he was shooting the film. He did spend time with people with Asperger’s before filming and did some reading on the subject (he recommends the John Elder Robison book “Look Me in the Eye’’), but he also focused his attention on the love story. He never pondered how “a room full of Aspies’’ would take his performance.

“You can’t afford to step outside and think of the implications,’’ Dancy said. “Now that we’ve done it, the fact that it has that message . . . it’s great.’’

In the end, the movie went over well at the Asperger’s Association screening. Audience members praised Dancy’s portrayal and Mayer’s script. Some people raised their hands to admit that they had committed many of the character’s social faux pas themselves.

Dancy and Byrne said that after the screening they were approached by a young, attractive man who told them that because of his Asperger’s he never knows when women are flirting with him. He just can’t figure out what they’re trying to tell him.

“He was like the real-life Adam. He was like, kind of good-looking and kind of lovely,’’ Byrne said, adding with a giggle. “Really awkward.’’

Dancy liked him, too. “We all conferred after and said, ‘He should have a girlfriend.’ He was charming, honest. . .’’

Mayer and the actors said the positive reviews meant more coming from the Asperger’s audience. People with the disorder can have a tough time lying just to be nice. That kind of politeness just isn’t in their repertoire.

“We would have known,’’ Dancy said, of bad reviews, adding that one woman in the audience told him his work in the movie was “competent.’’

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.

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