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Bonni McCoy, C&EN Contributing Editor

Adam Poster Happy childhoods make lousy bar stories. Change is hard. The Mets ain't World Series bound. It's also true that the moviegoing public doesn't need another cookie-cutter romantic comedy, so writer/director Max Mayer delivers "Adam," a delicately crafted Manhattan love story that asks us to confront truth and intimacy in a compelling new way.

Hugh Dancy ("The Jane Austen Book Club," "Confessions of a Shopaholic") turns in a finely nuanced performance as Adam Raki, a grown man who lives alone and sheltered following the death of his father. Adam's perfectionism hampers him in his job as an electrical engineer, but his nightly dinner of macaroni and cheese and detached demeanor at his father's funeral are the real tip-offs that something's amiss. Adam has Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism characterized by repetitive behaviors, restricted body and facial expressions, laserlike focus on topics of interest, and a lack of emotional reciprocity.

Cue the cute meet as Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne, from TV's "Damages") moves into Adam's building. Beth, a kindergarten teacher and aspiring children's book author, finds herself attracted to Adam's uncompromising honesty and charming good looks. For his part, Adam pursues the open-minded, vivacious Beth with a childlike sense of wonder and the unwavering commitment to truth-telling that his Asperger's syndrome provides.

Adam's condition sets forth an extreme iteration of common relationship challenges, in which uncertainty and misunderstanding tend to spar with heady euphoria. Here's a guy oozing with social anxiety, knowing he's neither able to perceive others' feelings nor communicate effectively, but—bewitched by feminine allure—he forges bravely on. Here's a caring, nonjudgmental woman who's come to guide him in areas of weakness (instruction on how to maintain eye contact, handle job interviews, and so on), all the while celebrating his best qualities.

Shangri-la, until Beth's parents enter the fray as opposites in their own way: gracious mother Becky (a serene Amy Irving) and overbearing, dismissive father Marty (played with theatric exaggeration by Peter Gallagher, in the film's only casting misfire). Marty tells his daughter, "You don't need to settle" for someone like Adam, but Marty's own duplicity lands him in court, part of a murky, unnecessary subplot involving fraudulent accounting. Beth worries about her dad; Adam hasn't the foggiest notion how to comfort her; the tribulations mount.

Although a small portion of footage from "Adam" would have found a happier home on the cutting-room floor (an outburst by Beth, for example, in which she inexplicably forgets that Adam has Asperger's syndrome), Mayer treats his subject tenderly, steering clear of self-serious Disease of the Week piffle. In fact, Mayer handles Adam's condition and its limitations with utmost respect throughout, avoiding cheap laughs by allowing frequently attendant humor to surface organically.

"Adam" arrives in theatres as awareness of Asperger's syndrome grows among the mainstream population. Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger first observed the symptoms in 1944, but it took another 40 years for Asperger's syndrome to be included in the "Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" and become recognized as a distinct disease in the autism spectrum.

As accurately portrayed in "Adam," people with Asperger's display what has come to be called "mindblindness," the lack of an innate ability to understand that other people have feelings, beliefs, and desires that are different from one's own. Unsurprisingly, mindblindness makes communication and closeness with others difficult, and its sufferers convey an often brutal honesty.

Research into Asperger's neurological causes is still in its early stages, but as the first doctor-diagnosed group of "Aspies" (as they like to call themselves) reach dating-career-marriage-parenting stages, significant numbers are blogging and tweeting their embrace of "neurodiversity" and rejecting the kind of behavioral therapy deigned to make them "neurotypical" (Andrew Solomon, "The Autism Rights Movement," New York Magazine, May 2008). The rallying cry's getting louder: Dan Geschwind, director of the neurogenetics program at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, finds that certain kinds of excellence might require not just various modes of thinking, but different kinds of brains (Steve Silberman, "The Geek Syndrome," Wired, December 2001). Indeed, in the past 10 years, geekitude's been swaggering; did you catch Intel's "your rock star isn't like our rock star" ad campaign? That's Ajay Bhatt, coinventor of the USB, the women are swooning over.

At a recent critics' screening, this writer found herself seated near a few employees from Adaptations, a New York City-based organization that helps college-educated people in their 20s and 30s with Asperger's and/or learning disabilities navigate their way in the world. Although these hands-on therapists unanimously enjoyed the film, they also found it implausible that Adam and Beth would ever have a lasting relationship. As Temple Grandin, an accomplished engineer with Asperger's writes in her autobiography, "Marriages work out best when two people with autism marry or when a person marries a handicapped or eccentric person ... they are attracted because their intellects work on a similar wavelength."

"Adam" is not and does not aim to be another "Rain Man" or "Forrest Gump," films its main character will undoubtedly call to mind. An imperfect but affecting bit of entertainment, it easily overcomes some clichéd plotting and a few melodramatic missteps, winning its audience over with top-notch acting, gentle humor, and—perhaps most important—a spirited call to our own sense of compassion. As Beth's wise mother tells her, "finding love is important, but loving is the necessity."