Adam (Hugh Dancy), appropriately shares his name with the first man because even though he lives in contemporary Manhattan, he is in a very real way new to the world. He seems at once tightly wound and untethered. When he talks about astronomy and outer space he seems not just vastly knowledgeable but more at home there than he is where he works or where he lives. We can tell right away that he is unusual, but we do not learn how or why until mid-way through the film. He has Asperger Syndrome, a sort of social dyslexia, an inability to pick up on social cues that “neuro-typical” (most people) recognize instinctively. For him, what happens in the sky makes more sense because it is rational and predictable than what happens in human interaction, where people do not always say what they mean and what is most interesting to work on is not always what his employer needs him to do.
We first see Adam standing at a grave site. His father, his tether to and buffer from the world, has died and for the first time he must try to make sense of things on his own. A young teacher named Beth (Rose Byrne) moves into his apartment building. She, too, is at a vulnerable moment, struggling with loss and betrayal. A man who cannot lie has a lot of appeal to her, and for a while at least that may make up for what he lacks.
Writer/director Max Mayer has crafted a sensitive, even lyrical, script that quickly makes us care about both of these characters. We want Adam and Beth to be happy, but Mayer wisely is not clear whether that means having them together or apart. This is not a movie about an exotic set of Aspergers symptoms. It is a movie about Adam and Beth, who have struggles that will be familiar to anyone who ever tried to find trust, connection and a place to feel at home. Like the raccoon they watch in Central Park, all of us feel at times that we are not supposed to here, but we are, and we must find a way to make the best of it. Perhaps Mayer’s canniest choice as a writer was to give Beth such good reasons to find Adam appealing. Her vulnerability after a bad breakup has her thinking at first that Adam’s standoffish behavior just means he is not that into her. It does not occur to her that it is because of his social limitations. As a warm-hearted teacher, she is naturally drawn to someone who needs her. Her father (Peter Gallagher) objects to Adam, but it is her mother (a most welcome Amy Irving) whose own example tells Beth what she most needs to know.
Byrne is appealing as Beth, and the cast includes strong support from Irving and from Broadway veteran Frankie Faison. But the heart of the movie is Adam and Dancy is excellent, relinquishing the leading man aura he carried so effortlessly in films like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “Ella Enchanted” and showing us Adam’s literal sense of tactile friction with the world as well as his longing for the kind of relationship he can not quite understand. It’s as though he is very, very far-sighted, the stars clear to him but what is right in front of him is out of focus. Dancy’s performance and Mayer’s thoughtful script and direction are just right in bringing Adam into sharp focus to illuminate not just his struggles but our own.