Rhys Ernst says there is a "war on nuance" happening in the world of LGBTQ filmmaking.
The transgender director of Adam — a film about a cisgender, straight teen who pretends to be a trans man in order to date a lesbian — addressed the backlash the movie has generated in the Q&A following its Sunday screening at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival.
Adam and its premise — it was adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name by Ariel Schrag — has sparked calls on social media for a boycott as well as accusations of transphobia and lesbophobia. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will be released in theaters by Wolfe Releasing in mid-August.
In his remarks, Ernst, who is also a producer of Amazon's Transparent, attributed the backlash in part to the current political climate. "It is a weird time to take a creative risk, certainly as a trans filmmaker," acknowledged Ernst. "I think there’s a war on nuance right now."
"When I first heard the very short, elevator pitch version of what this was about, I was skeptical," he admitted. "But when I read the script, I was really surprised and really challenged by it. I really saw this as an incredibly powerful Trojan horse, upside down, really refreshing story in my mind. ... I was so taken with it that I knew that I had to do it. I sort of felt called."
"I knew it would be challenging work, at least at face value, to come out in 2019," Ernst continued. "But I kind of am pushing back on that — that trans filmmakers or queer filmmakers have to do safe work. That we shouldn’t push boundaries, and we shouldn’t make people question things or be uncomfortable. Which I think there is a lot of pressure towards that right now. You think of the origins of queer filmmaking, it’s the opposite. It’s always been about pushing boundaries. So I feel [a] responsibility to do that now more than ever."
Adam stars Nicholas Alexander as Adam, a straight high-schooler who is mistaken for a trans man by a young lesbian, Gillian (Bobbi Menuez), after attending a party in Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood with his queer sister, Casey (Margaret Qualley). Adam's attraction to Gillian keeps him silent about his cisgender identity, which in turn leads him on a journey toward learning about LGBTQ culture.
For the viewer, Adam becomes an access point toward seeing the spaces where the lesbian and trans communities intersect and divide; a notable scene occurs at a protest of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, a now-defunct event that historically excluded trans women. The film is set in 2006, and much of the language surrounding trans and queer identities is specific to that era.
Scott Turner Schofield, a performer who made history as the first trans actor to appear on daytime TV with The Bold and the Beautiful, moderated the Q&A, which also included Alexander and Leo Sheng (The L Word: Generation Q), who portrays Adam's friend and flatmate, Ethan.
Schofield, who also works with the LGBTQ media group GLAAD, praised Adam at its screening. "I see a film and a filmmaker who are really pushing us into the future of queer and trans filmmaking," he told the packed crowd at the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles to applause.
Schoefield praised that Ernst "took a risk" in "making a film that maybe the whole trans community wouldn’t be into, maybe the whole LGBTQ community people wouldn’t be into, maybe cis straight people wouldn’t find palatable, and you did it anyway. Is that not rad?"
Schrag's novel has also been no stranger to criticism. "This is a strange, hurtful, and bizarre vision of the world and it is a profound and confounding misunderstanding of the relationship of power between cis men (her protagonist) and trans men (his alter ego)," Tom Léger wrote in a 2015 Tumblr review.
In a Tumblr post on July 13 of this year summarizing the plot points of the novel, India Hendrie linked to Léger's piece and called Adam "the most disgustingly transphobic and lesbophobic narrative I’ve ever come across." Hendrie urged a boycott that has been widely shared on Twitter.
On July 16, Ernst began a Twitter thread quoting from a 2018 Medium piece outlining the differences between the novel and the film and his reasons for directing a production that has sparked controversy.
"Because of the long history of harmful and outright false depictions of trans lives, our community is rightfully distrustful of material that might add to this negative legacy," Ernst wrote at the time. "However, I believe in the power of trans art and storytelling, even when it is challenging or uncomfortable. Creating trans art often requires difficult conversations, and I strive to show up, be present and responsible to this dialogue."
"As a trans person, I know our concerns are often ignored by those with greater privilege, so it is important to me to share the work that we did on the project and to claim it as a trans story."
Adam is Ernst's first feature film. When asked by an Outfest audience member if his next production would center on trans characters, the director defended the ensemble cast's LGBTQ diversity but noted that his following film will be a "middle-aged trans guy buddy movie" with trans leads.
"The sort of irony of the lead of my first featuring being a straight cis teenager is not lost on me," Ernst said. "The fact that it was ironic, I thought it was a little delicious too. Like, I'm going to do something different. I guess I'm just trying to break rules."
Watch the trailer for Adam below.