In the 1992 movie “The Crying Game,” when Stephen Rea’s Fergus learns that the woman he has fallen in love with, Dil, is transgender, he strikes her across the face and rushes to the bathroom to vomit. Eventually, the two characters reconcile, but Dil’s transness never evolves into anything more than a plot twist. Similarly, in films like “Some Like It Hot,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “She’s the Man” (a modern take on the classic tale of gender deceit, Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”), the concept of mistaken gender identity is used for little more than tension and humor.
Nearly 27 years after the premiere of “The Crying Game,” Rhys Ernst, a trans artist and filmmaker who was a producer on four seasons of Amazon’s “Transparent,” is taking the age-old “trans deception” narrative and turning it on its head. In “Adam,” Ernst’s feature directorial debut, a straight cisgender teenage boy finds himself tangled in a troubling lie: Adam’s newfound crush, Gillian, mistakes him for a transgender man, and he goes along with it.
On its surface, the movie’s premise, which revolves around a straight guy masquerading as a marginalized person to get a girl, is outrageous. Ariel Schrag’s 2014 novel of the same name, on which “Adam” is based, was met with backlash from members of the LGBTQ community who said the story was transphobic and biphobic, among a laundry list of other criticisms. “The premise of the novel is supposed to be provocative,” she said in a Lambda Literary interview that year. “It’s supposed to ignite feelings of ‘Oooh that’s ‘problematic.’”
The novel’s detractors may be relieved to learn that the movie, also written by Schrag, excises some of the book’s more troublesome material and expands on its more trenchant commentary. The key difference between the source material and the film, which had its Sundance premiere on Friday, is Ernst. The director deftly reinterprets Schrag’s narrative through a trans perspective, setting it in an authentically queer environment where diverse LGBTQ characters are played by trans and nonbinary actors. When Adam (Nicholas Alexander) visits his queer older sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley), for the summer, he dives head first into the political protests, sex-positive play parties and sweaty queer bars of New York City circa 2006. In the cinematic world of “Adam,” the cis straight people are the outsiders.
Ernst has dedicated his career to trans storytelling, from his 2012 Sundance short, “The Thing,” to his Emmy-winning docu-series, “This Is Me,” to his trans history web series, “We’ve Been Around.” He recognizes the provocative core of “Adam”; he too had issues with the book. But he was ultimately enthralled by the challenge of pushing boundaries at this moment in trans cinema. “I’m excited about making worlds in which being trans is cool, because it’s not how we were brought up,” he said. “If it takes a cis guy making a really big mistake in that world to tell that story and flip the dynamic and feel cool and beautiful for being trans, I think that’s a really worthwhile and unexpected route.”
On a recent frigid weekend afternoon in New York City, Ernst sat down with me in a Manhattan wine bar to talk about the pressures of working in the predominantly cis heterosexual movie industry as a trans filmmaker, how “Adam” offers a glimpse of transmasculine identity rarely seen on the big screen and how he plans to create a trilogy of movies about trans men.
How did “Adam” come to be your first feature film?
I had done a lot of different things, except for a feature, and I was really anxious to make [one]. It was literally the week after we wrapped “Transparent” season 4 — I’d just directed the season finale. I got this email from [producers] Howard Gertler and James Schamus about this project. They had been developing it with somebody else, who had to step out for scheduling reasons.
Right, Desiree Akhavan.
Exactly. I’m a fan of her work, so it would have been exciting to see that too. I didn’t know anything about the project when they emailed me. I’d heard about the book, but not very much. I was sort of nervous. What is this going to be about? Then when I read the script, it really surprised me. I felt like it was inverting all these narrative expectations and asked so many complicated questions. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was like, “Oh, God, I just have to.”
Did you go back and read the book?
I did. There were a lot of changes between the book and the script, so I didn’t really dwell on the book that much. I’m seeing my role and vision in this to create a whole new work that’s jumping off from the script but not the book so much.
I’m curious what your reaction is to the backlash against the book. What would you say to people who may be hesitant to see the movie because of their issues with the book?
I wanted to reinterpret this story through a trans lens. There were a lot of changes that were made by the time it was a script, and I made further changes in the process of making it. For me, it’s a thought experiment about what would happen if this kind of storytelling device was flipped and the world was trans, the world was opposite, in a way. It’s almost like, what if the world was totally queer and trans? And what would it mean if a cis person was an outsider?
I think Adam and Gillian’s relationship is morally ambiguous. It’s pretty complicated. I think the book has a different take on their relationship than I do in this film. So for people who have a pre-existing idea of what the [film] may be like or had issues with the book, I would say the movie is a really different type of thought experiment. I hope people come to it with an open mind and see a trans filmmaker who is trying to do something really different. And it might be challenging, and that’s OK.
I don’t want to run from a complicated scenario or a morally ambiguous scenario, as a trans filmmaker or as a queer trans audience member. We’ve seen these types of dynamics play out in heterosexual storytelling so many times. What does it mean when we flip that and we are the authors of it? Can we sit in that complicated stew and invite more experimentation going forward? That’s what I want to see — more risk-taking, more experimentation from trans authors and filmmakers.
There’s so much in “Adam” that I’ve never seen before in a film and really connected to, specifically about the uniqueness of trans and queer experiences. There’s the video montage of trans YouTubers (I watched some of those when coming out!), the Brooklyn play party and the way you casually show a guy’s top-surgery scars. And some background extras are trans and nonbinary folks I know and follow on Instagram. That felt so special to see.
That’s awesome to hear. I was really excited not only to work with a new, exciting group of queer and trans actors but also to depict so many mold-breaking, different ways of being trans and different types of trans people. Like a femme transmasculine character. It was really fun to be like, “Here’s another way of being trans! And another way of being trans!” Of course, I can’t show all of them ever in this one movie, but it was really exciting to have a peek at how complex and diverse the trans world really is.
I love that the film doesn’t limit the possibilities of what masculinity can look like.
I’m kind of obsessed with deconstructing masculinity and looking at it as this thing that really is highly performed, even though we think of it as being invisible or constant or neutral in society. I find it fascinating to look at how people construct it, how really deep-cis straight guys perform it. Adam’s best friend is overperforming masculinity at all times and is obviously the toxic masculine extreme. [Editor’s note: Adam’s high school best friend, Brad, is the classic arrogant jock type and visits Adam in New York in hopes of meeting girls.] This story, it’s optimistic about how a cis straight guy can grow away from toxic masculinity, this expectation that he grows up around, and learn this other path. I think that’s a really humanistic and optimistic idea that feels really important, right now especially.
It was really fun to be like, ‘Here’s another way of being trans! And another way of being trans!’ Of course, I can’t show all of them ever in this one movie, but it was really exciting to have a peek at how complex and diverse the trans world really is. Rhys Ernst
The film kind of imagines a world where cis straight boys grow up with trans men as role models for masculinity and so much more. It’s thrilling to imagine — how different would that world be?
Totally. Adam kind of learns how to be himself or be a man or whatever through two things: this experience of pretending to be someone he’s not and realizing what a stupid thing he’s done. But he also learns how to be a man and sort of becomes himself from the example of, especially, trans men. His [new] best friend, who’s a trans man, really becomes his role model. To see a young boy learn how to be a man from a trans man, I think, is so exciting.
Both “Adam” and “Transparent” are projects that have faced backlash for various reasons. To me, you helped bring a really crucial authenticity and inclusivity to each. It’s easy to imagine both being vastly different, as far as trans representation, without your involvement.
Some of these projects have had troubled histories or moments. If a trans person is entering the industry, they’re entering this problematic, complicated world in which they’re the minority. You can try to create something totally new that comes from you, but people should also work with cis filmmakers and contribute and improve. That’s something I have tried to do at times. And I feel a pressure that if it’s not perfect, you might suffer some criticism, and that’s valid. But I’m just trying to do my best and trying to improve the product we’re seeing on screen, in terms of representation, and the conditions for trans people who are working on it and to make space for more trans people.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been working on a couple of projects. One is a middle-aged trans guy buddy movie, which I’m really excited about. I’m working on a horror movie. It’s sort of a gendery horror movie that takes place in the desert. I’m a major horror fan, and horror is so much about gender. I want to make a trans guy trilogy. As unlikely of an entry into that as “Adam” is, I think “Adam” is a part of the trans guy trilogy. It’s like the weird inverse of that idea. The other two features, I think, will be with a youngish trans guy and a middle-aged trans guy. So it’s different versions of transmasculinity and its effects.
That’s awesome. I’m so desperately waiting to see movies about trans men.
Yeah! I can’t wait. I’m ready to get going.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Oliver Whitney is a film critic and culture writer living in Brooklyn.