Inside ‘Adam,’ the Movie LGBT Activists Want Banned, and the Perils of Trans Storytelling in 2019
‘Adam’ director Rhys Ernst opens up to Kevin Fallon about the nuances of new LGBT films, why his shouldn’t be boycotted, and the particular struggles of a trans filmmaker in 2019.
When director Rhys Ernst and I met to discuss his new film, Adam, earlier this summer, it was several months after its well-received premiere at the Sundance Film Festival but still weeks away from its theatrical release. Ernst was anxious for that reason: “I think it’s a hard movie to talk about until you see it.”
His film, out Wednesday, is based on Ariel Schrag’s controversial 2014 novel in which a straight, cisgender teenage boy named Adam is mistaken for a trans man by a cisgender lesbian in Bushwick as he visits his sister and her LGBTQ+ friends during the summer of 2006. Adam runs with the mistaken identity, entering a relationship with her while pretending to be trans the entire time.
Ernst, who is transmasculine, told me when we met for coffee in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood that he thinks his film—which alters significant aspects of the novel that were considered most problematic—is “unusual for this moment.”
“It’s a tricky time to make a really edgy movie, particularly in queer subject matter right now,” he said. “The way we talk about things on social media or the way we pass around headlines, it just doesn’t contribute to a larger sense of nuance on tricky subjects like this.”
It’s almost as if Ernst had already predicted the boycott campaign against Adam that, in the film’s week of release, is gaining traction and making headlines. Two separate petitions urging that the film not be released have amassed nearly 7,000 signatures at the time of publishing, with the hashtag #BoycottAdam alight on social media.
One petition alleges that Adam is “transphobic,” citing the plot of Schrag’s novel and insisting that it “presents an offensive, twisted, and hurtful view on the trans community.” The other petition also summarizes the book before alleging that the movie “puts down Lesbian and Trans culture.”
In all likelihood, the people who have signed the petitions and used the hashtag—and perhaps even those who started the petitions themselves—have not seen the film, which is not yet in theaters.
Responding to the boycotts in an interview with film writer Oliver Whitney for Vulture, Ernst said, “I really understand and can empathize with why people are apprehensive at the idea of something they perceive [to] be upsetting or harmful or negative towards a vulnerable community like the queer and trans community.” He added that there is a “cloud of misinformation” about what is depicted in the film, as the film differs from the book.
(A representative for Ernst advised to use his statement in Vulture as a direct reaction to the boycott for The Daily Beast’s piece as well.)
Ernst was first contacted about Adam after wrapping the fourth season of Transparent, on which he served as a producer. Originally, The Miseducation of Cameron Post director Desiree Akhavan was set to helm the adaptation, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.
He had heard of Schrag’s novel and was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding it, but had never read it himself. He assumed that after reading the script, he would be forced to turn the offer down, worrying that trans issues wouldn’t be handled well based on the novel’s reputation. But he was impressed with the script and, after going back to read the novel, noticed marked differences between the two pieces.
In the screenplay, the character of Adam is a gentler, more curious protagonist with his own, clearer crisis of identity. A particularly contentious scene from the novel, which critics have interpreted as a “corrective rape”—a characterization that Schrag and the filmmakers dispute—no longer exists. And a reworked ending makes the film’s central premise of “trans deception” a more palatable catalyst for the exploration of masculinity and identity. Ernst also populates the L Word viewing parties and Bushwick queer bars that Adam frequents with a constellation of joyous, positive LGBTQ characters.
“I saw in the script potential to interpret even further through a trans lens and do something really radical,” Ernst said when we met.
“I think that some of the controversy about the book is based on what people think it might be about or maybe what they heard,” he said. “If there’s any sort of speculation or anxiety about that, I would just ask for people to relax and watch the movie themselves. I think that they’re going to feel held, embraced, relieved, and happy about watching this movie.”
Whatever opinion one might have on Adam, what the controversy illustrates is the precarious and passionate moment we are undergoing when it comes to the stories about the LGBTQ+ community being told, especially the trans community, who is telling them, and what message those stories send to the broader population.
It’s never been a more vital time to be a queer, trans, or gender-nonconforming storyteller. It’s also, arguably, a more volatile time than ever, too.
This is not Ernst’s first rodeo. In addition to his time on Transparent, itself a lightning rod in the queer and trans community, he’s also directed the documentary series This Is Me, and the short films The Thing and She Gone Rogue, all dealing with trans issues or featuring trans characters.
More broadly speaking in the LGBTQ+ community, any film or TV series that purports to reflect the experience of a person on the queer or gender spectrum tends to be at the receiving end of harsh scrutiny. In fact, it is within those communities that the scrutiny can be the most critical and, sometimes, hateful.
“We are tough on each other and I think it’s unfortunate and it’s overdone,” Ernst said. “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.”
Specifically when it comes to trans filmmaking, “we’re so overdue for any kind of trans content that’s not terrible that there’s this feeling like it needs to represent everybody all at once—and the exact way that will satisfy everybody’s overdue need.”
It’s impossible, he said, likening the inevitable backlash to “sort of a strait jacket.”
Ernst admitted that he can be impatient in his own storytelling to push past introductory 101-level, affirmational moments and characters. Because there are so few entries in the canon of trans filmmaking, each new project can get stuck in the rut of responsibility, feeling the need to have the same starter conversation over and over again, never shading it or taking the experience further.
“I’m a big believer in jumping into the 201 or 301, throwing the audience into the deep end and letting them catch up,” he said. “I think that’s a better strategy for getting people to lean in and be more curious rather than calling on the basic things that they half-know already.”
That’s the approach he took with Adam.
Adam marks the rare time Ernst has directed a project that he didn’t also write, something he has in common with many—if not most—queer and trans filmmakers who, whether out of desire or, more often, necessity, create their own source material.
Ernst said there seems to be palpable interest in Hollywood at the moment in telling trans stories, but the scripts and projects floating around are, generally speaking, not great. Nearly all of them revisit the same kind of trans coming out story, over and over. He knows because he receives a lot of them.
“When I meet with a producer or a production company, I think there’s an expectation that I’m only interested in trans content, which is not true,” Ernst said.
His ambitions run the gamut, from horror to more coming-of-age tales, but he’s confused as to why he’s put in a box when, as a trans person, he considers himself to have a greater passport into understanding the human condition than most creatives. “Gender is everywhere in society. It’s not just trans stories.”
It’s at this point that we move to the more meta aspects of our conversation. Even when talking about Adam specifically, we have almost exclusively stuck to topics involving trans issues and Ernst’s experiences as a trans filmmaker. While the film’s subject matter certainly lends itself to this, it’s an instinct that would be absent if he was a cisgender or straight filmmaker talking about a controversial film.
Almost every time Ernst’s work is written about, his trans identity is either in the headline or the lede of the piece. That’s important for visibility and representation. But it can also be admittedly frustrating.
There was a project he was involved in recently where there was pressure from the publicity team to put the fact that he was trans in the first line of his biography. At the time, he found it annoying. Ultimately, he conceded, figuring that it was “better for the world” that it be there. “I feel a sense of responsibility in terms of trans representation and being transparent and open more than I am burdened by it,” he said.
But not every cisgender or straight filmmaker is expected to put that identifier before their name. Same, really, for gay filmmakers.
“Even ‘female director’ or ‘black director,’ these things sound belittling when you say them out loud,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants their identity marker in their title when they want to be known for their work. But we’re in such early stages of trans representation that, even though it’s basic, it’s important.”
It’s rare for a straight filmmaker to be asked questions that begin with “as a straight man…” yet that’s almost exclusively the case when Ernst does interviews. He’s fine with it. More, when it comes to a project like Adam—and especially given the precariousness of the subject matter and the reaction to the book—he’s glad that his identity is part of the story.
“It's important for me to be clear that, as a trans director, I have these particular goals and ideas when approaching this topic,” he said. “If I had been a straight cisgender guy making this movie, it automatically has different context and different perspective. I do think I’m trying to do something with a trans gaze in this movie that’s challenging the ways that the cisgender gaze has always functioned in trans movies of the past.”