“A Kid Like Jake” is a thought-provoking and moving family drama about the challenges of parenting a gender non-conforming child. It certainly won’t be the last movie to tackle the subject, but it’s a great place to start the conversation.
Greg and Alex Wheeler (Jim Parsons and Claire Danes) are an upwardly mobile couple who move to a chic neighborhood in Brooklyn so their 4-year old son Jake (Leo James Davis) can attend the excellent local public school. Greg is a hard-working therapist with an apparently thriving practice. Alex is an attorney, but has taken time off from her career to be a stay-at-home mom.
The problems start when the Wheeler’s new home is zoned out of the school district. Things get more complicated when their friend Judy (Octavia Spencer), who is also the director of Jake’s pre-school, encourages them to acknowledge Jake’s “gender-expansive play.” Jake, she emphasizes, is a bright and creative boy with great test scores, but he needs to find a school where he will be “safe and accepted” since he is already having behavioral issues.
The Wheeler’s rather brittle facade begins to chip away as they enter the hyper-competitive race for admission slots and financial aid at New York private schools and as they start to realize that Jake’s preferences for princesses and skirts over cars and jeans is probably not just a phase. From there, other complications ensue, the pressure increases and a series of confrontations flare up.
Transgender director Silas Howard (who has directed episodes of “Pose,” “This Is Us” and “Transparent,” as well as several short films) handles this messy scenario with great skill and control. He builds the mounting tension with great precision, starting with small details in the opening scenes that finally build to a brutal argument where long-repressed resentments erupt. The final clash is beautifully filmed, with the combatants breaking through years of fears and frustrations as they stormily follow each other through the house.
Howard’s strong direction is well supported by his close collaboration with cinematographer Steven Capitano Calitri. Even the most jaded Manhattanite will have to admit that Brooklyn can be a lovely place and the beautiful and subtle way they capture the light as night moves into day and fall turns into winter helps give the film a strong but understated sense of momentum.
Howard’s work with the cast is wonderful. Danes tackles the challenging and sometimes unlikable role of Alex with honesty and bravery. Alex, who feels trapped by the social expectations that her family has put on her, understandably worries about the potential downside of putting a label on her son so early.
Parsons also turns in a fine performance as the mild-mannered Greg. Greg tries to keep the peace at all cost, even refusing to confront the doctor in the neighboring suite whose “scream therapy” sessions are disturbing his own patients. Greg and Alex both fiercely love their son, but it’s not clear that they will they find the courage to let him express his authentic self.
In addition to the excellent Spencer, the supporting cast features Ann Dowd as Alex’s abrasive mother Catherine; Priyanka Chopra as Amal, a divorced family friend; and the superb Amy Landecker as Sandra, one of Greg’s patients. Unfortunately, most of these characters are underwritten and need more development.
The screenplay is by Daniel Pearle, based on his 2013 stage play of the same name, and his expansion of the material is uneven. For example, the addition of Sandra was a great idea; seeing Greg at work fleshes out his character and Sandra’s storyline sheds an interesting light on the tense relationship between Greg and Alex and Alex’s reluctance to put Jake into therapy.
But the character arcs for the other supporting characters are presented less successfully and even Jake gets very little screen time (he’s an offstage character in the stage play). The movie is less than 90 minutes long, so spending more time with these interesting characters would help develop the central conflict more fully.
“A Kid Like Jake” is a strong feature-length directorial debut for Silas Howard. He explores a trending issue with great sensitivity and a strong command of the camera. Despite some weaknesses in the script, he and his cast create a moving family drama that is a must-see, especially for LGBT audiences.