Adam and Beth meet awkwardly in the basement of their New York apartment house. She's a vivacious schoolteacher new to the building. He's an electrical engineer who appears, at times, new to any manner of social interaction.
Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne star as the differently wired pair in Adam, which opens Friday at the Kentucky Theatre. Written and directed by Max Mayer, the indie charmer has its share of sweet misunderstandings, jitters, bouts of frustrations — the things you expect in a romantic comedy.
There is a wrinkle you don't quite expect: Handsome, bright, rather obsessive Adam lives with Asperger's syndrome, a condition often referred to as "high-functioning autism."
"Aspies," as some with the condition identify themselves, exhibit signs of social awkwardness often coupled with bouts of obsessive interest, whip-smart chattering and other symptoms.
At a recent interview, Dancy and Byrne discussed the peculiar responsibility that comes with starring in a film that depicts autism in an intimate way.
The pair had attended a screening the previous night co-hosted by the Autism Society of Colorado. There they got a fine dose of how the story resonates for people new to thinking about Asperger's, but, even more vitally, for those living with it.
"They've all been really embracing of the film," says Byrne of the Aspies she's met at publicity tour screenings.
"And they'd really tell you if they didn't like it," she adds with a gentle laugh.
Dancy believes much of the enthusiastic feedback comes from "just the fact of being recognized and being represented in a way that doesn't patronize them."
Here Dancy hits on one of the more delicate dances that movies and moviegoers perform. It's a dance of the universal and the particular. How can one be recognized as part of a class of people even as one yearns to be celebrated as singular? And what can be more singular than love?
"What they're responding to as a group, as a community, is actually our attempt not to represent a whole community but represent an individual," Dancy says. "The response to the movie is almost out of proportion. "What they're responding to is their entire lives."
If this sounds insightful, it's worth noting that the thoughtful 34-year-old actor is the son of philosopher Jonathan Dancy.
Byrne — Ellen Parsons on the FX series Damages — has a family friend in Australia with Asperger's. Although she's no stranger to the different style of interaction, she had to play someone who was. Beth is a "neurotypical or NT," a moniker coined by folks within the autism community for the rest of us. "Beth doesn't know anything about it," says Byrne. "So I tried to keep that somewhat genuine."
Dancy recounts a moment at the previous night's screening when a woman who identified herself as having Asperger's stood to ask a question about how he prepared for his role.
"So I gave my answer," Dancy says. "And the woman next to her said, 'Could you repeat everything you said but for Aspies, because I didn't understand a word you said. You were talking NT, all those adjectives."
Had the woman not mentioned adjectives, Dancy wouldn't have known how to begin again, he says.
A year after making Adam, Dancy continues to appreciate the challenge of thinking outside his own neuro-wiring.
Later, the woman asked if he'd sign a flier for her friend.
"I said I'd be happy to," he recounts, smiling. "She said, 'Why?'"