‘Adam’: Rhys Ernst Wanted His Film to Flip the ‘Trans Deception Trope’ and Tell a Timely Story of Understanding

Sundance: For his feature directorial debut, Ernst took on Ariel Schrag's novel about a cis teen boy who "passes" as trans, a twist on an old trope that couldn't be more necessary today.
'Adam': Rhys Ernst Wanted His Film to Flip 'Trans Deception Trope'
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Aïssa Maïg, and William Kamkwama
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Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor
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Set in the summer of 2006, Rhys Ernst’s feature directorial debut, “Adam,” takes a story with some familiar themes — coming of age, understanding one’s sexuality, falling in love for the first time — and twists them into some interesting new shapes. Based on Ariel Schrag’s novel of the same name, the film also finds new ways to explore ideas in serious need of freshening, like the “trans deception trope” that Ernst was eager to buck. The film follows the eponymous Adam (Nicholas Alexander), a cisgender teenage boy who joins his cool older sister in New York City during one pivotal summer. His sibling his heavily involved in the LGBT scene, and when Adam is mistaken for a young trans guy, he goes with it — especially because it allows him to spend more time with a young lesbian who might not be so inclined if she knew his actual status.

It’s tricky material, but Ernst is hopeful that it can make an impact through its care and consideration. Ernst, along with his cast members Alexander, Chloe Levine, Leo Sheng, and Bobbi Salvör Menuez, stopped by the IndieWire Sundance Studio, presented by Dropbox, to discuss the film in general and its handling of sensitive topics in particular. For the filmmaker, that necessary care started from the very beginning of his involvement with the project.

Ernst recalled getting the script before he signed on for the project and wondering how such material would be handled. “Not knowing much about it, other than the premise, before I read it, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, how will this subject be handled?’,” he recalled. “As a trans director, I really want to make sure that trans representation and other-ness is treated really sensitively and carefully, and when I read the script, I was so impressed with how it kind of flipped this trans deception trope on its head.”

And while the film is set in 2006, Ernst believes it has plenty to say about this moment in history. After all, aren’t stories about understanding and empathy always in need in strange times?

“I think, when we’re looking at the very divided moment we’re in culturally right now, how do we kind of come together? How do we bridge this gulf?,” he said. “It’s funny, because we’re talking about Adam, this teenager in 2006 who has this sort of misadventure in the LGBT scene in New York City and it feels very specific, … and I think ‘Adam’ the movie kind of gives us this thought experiment about like, what if … this person could walk in someone marginalized’s shoes? What if this straight cisgender teenager can experience, for a day, for a month, or whatever, what it would be like … and how that effects this person?”

He added, “Maybe at face value, this movie might seem like — I would hope that  it wouldn’t seem like this — but maybe, ‘oh uh, Adam’s gonna do something to the LGBT community,’ but it’s actually, what the LGBT community does to Adam.”

Watch the full interview with the “Adam” team below. The film premiered at Sundance and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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