'A Kid Like Jake' Is A Beautifully Ambiguous Drama About Gender Nonconformity [Review]

Ten years from now, if one were to look back on the mid-to-late 2010s and try to pinpoint the era’s most important social issues, transgender politics would immediately jump to the top of the list. Recent years have seen radical changes in the way many people conceptualize gender presentation and identity, and transgender rights activists have fiercely fought for better access to specialized medical care, legal recognition of gender identity, and anti-discrimination policies. It’s a fraught issue, to say the least – as the lines between gender presentation and transgender identity blur, some gender nonconforming people feel they’ve been left in the lurch. Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” douses a family in these murky waters and dissects their drenched confusion.

‘Jake,’ Daniel Pearle’s adaptation of his own 2013 play, follows parents Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg Wheeler (Jim Parsons) as they struggle to find a private school for their almost-Kindergartner Jake (Leo James). The couple’s funds are as limited as their options, so when friend and preschool administrator Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests that Alex mention Jake’s “gender-expansive play” in application essays, she’s torn. Alex wants Jake to get a good education, but the suggestion also forces her to face her own complex feelings about her son, who loves tutus and throws a fit whenever something happens to his treasured porcelain Cinderella figurine. That internal conflict spills out into Alex’s marriage as Greg, an astounding compartmentalizer, appears more set on going with the flow than in validating his wife’s concerns. Throw in a fraught second pregnancy, Jake’s newfound rebellion, and Greg’s work difficulties with the scream therapist next door, and the Wheelers are quickly in over their heads.

As a film, “A Kid Like Jake” is fairly unremarkable. “Transparent” director Silas Howard seems content to let the script speak for itself, as cinematographer Steven Calitri sticks to run-of-the-mill indie visuals with his subdued colors and straightforward framing. It’s a very theatrical film, in which dialogue and acting are king. You can tell the screenwriter has a background in drama before even researching his name. While some might find that style off-putting, it fits this particular material quite well, and Howard is smart to lean into the film’s theatricality. Danes is especially convincing as Alex, a woman who, though neurotic, is self-aware enough to know that she’s behaving so, while Parsons complements her as the more avoidant Greg. Parsons is a great casting choice here, too, especially when Alex insinuates, mid-fight, that Jake might be so effeminate because of Greg’s own deficient masculinity.

What makes this film unique is its story, which is both delicately plotted and strikingly relevant. While it can get grating to see this New York couple balk in horror at the idea of sending their child to public school, the rest of their humanity stays very much intact, especially vis-à-vis their reactions to his gender nonconformity. The Wheelers are at once ignorant and compassionate, clearly devoted to whatever is best for their son. Unfortunately, like many parents of LGBT kids, they sometimes think that that means asking him to repress his difference – though more often they’d rather just let Jake be Jake. Octavia Spencer’s Judy, who has her own surprise stakes in the conversation, does some of the heavy lifting of LGBT wokeness for them, and as a result gets some of the film’s best lines. When Judy asks Greg if he’s ever talked to Jake about men wearing women’s clothes and Glen explains that he offered up Scottish kilts as an example, Judy looks at him askance. “You didn’t tell him there are men who do wear dresses in our culture?”

Perhaps most refreshingly, “A Kid Like Jake” makes no attempts to label its five-year-old subject. Modern conversations around transgender politics often leave out the rich history of atypical gender presentations in gay and lesbian communities. Trans men and butch women, for example, can find themselves fighting for the same seat at the discursive table. The film assigns neither gayness nor transness to Jake, who clearly has no understanding of the loaded modern conversation he embodies. The film’s position is, “Jake is five, and he likes to play dress-up,” which is certainly position enough. At the same time, the film takes care to not write Jake off as oblivious, either – he knows enough to understand that some people think his behavior is wrong. One surprisingly sad moment in the film comes when Jake runs, devastated, to tell his parents that a child at his own birthday party has called him “a flag.”

“A Kid Like Jake” is not a revolutionary film by any means, but one of the best things about it is that it’s not trying to be. The film is not a manifesto or a crash course in LGBT politics, instead opting to provide laypeople with an accessible way into a multitudinous, historically fraught conversation. With capable performances and a smart, character-focused script, this film balances its formal conventions with narrative nerve, ultimately making for a satisfying – if not show-stopping – watch. [B]