Synopsis – A Brooklyn couple has always known that their four-year-old son is more interested in fairy tale princesses than toy cars. But when his preschool director points out that his gender-nonconforming play may be more than a phase, the couple is forced to rethink their roles as parents and spouses.
My Take – The one thing which I have always appreciated about Indie films other than their norm of staying away from Blockbuster syndromes, is that they are always ready to take on any form of social issues on the big screen, no matter how taboo they may look or sound. Here, a feature film adaption of a 2013 play from writer Daniel Pearle, about a societal discussion of gender identity among young children, like most, also aims to start up a conversation, by pointing out how the society’s continuing system and parents force their children to fit in a specific role that will be accepted by everyone.
With director Silas Howard, a transgender filmmaker who has directed episodes of the show ‘Transparent,’ at the helm, this seemed like a slice of life film which would resonate beyond its premise, unfortunately, the material is bogged down by its own failings. Sure, the film does contain some good elements, yet, director Howard’s uneven and pedestrian commercial-meets-single-camera-sitcom direction is never able to compensate for the extreme stage feeling of the script. While the film has more than one reason to exist, it feels like a missed opportunity, especially considering the performances, you never fully feel the narrative weight of the story.
While the titular Jake (Leo James Davis), a typically quirky 4-year-old, is the center of the conflict here, the story follows his parents, Greg Wheeler (Jim Parsons) and Alex Wheeler (Claire Danes). On surface, they are a happily married couple. While Greg is a therapist with a small practice; Alex is a former attorney who left law to become a stay-at-home mom, to the disappointment of her own mother (Ann Dowd), who never misses a chance to voice passive-aggressive disapproval at Alex’s decision.
A year after moving into an expensive neighborhood with a sole purpose of getting their son into a top-ranked public school, the couple now find themselves facing with different options, including private schools they never planned to afford. However, conflict arises when Judy (Octavia Spencer), when Jake’s preschool director and a close friend to the couple suggest they seek financial aid hinting that his gender-expansive play might help him stand out in a sea of applicants to Manhattan’s elite and expensive private schools. While they have always noticed that Jake had an affinity for donning tutus and dresses and liked to watch and talk about Disney princess tales like A Little Mermaid and Cinderella, but the suggestion that his preferences in the playroom might be an indication of something bigger is not anything that Alex or Greg had considered.
It’s obvious here how director Silas Howard and screenwriter Daniel Pearle are aware of the absurdity of the private school rat race, poking fun at the system and at parents who buy into the scheme. But the plot is here all about the language, with the toddler and preschooler commandment to “use your words” ironically contrasted with a grown-ups tricky unwillingness to say what they mean. Its dilemma is one of parents being asked to define children who are too young to properly express themselves, with clear parallels to Alex’s relationship to her overbearing mom. Less clear parallels are provided by Greg’s sessions with a neurotically talkative client (Amy Landecker), and by a running gag that has him sharing a non-soundproofed wall with a colleague who practices scream therapy; the punchline of the latter deserves better than it gets here.
Perhaps that is why it is more notable what the script leaves out, the word ‘transgender’, which never makes it into the film, which is deliberately coy about what Jake’s nonconformity might mean, skirting around the subject as his parents do. The absence of the word trans comes off as an odd omission regardless of whether Jake’s presentation says anything about his identity, given that it’s clearly on the adults’ minds in all but name. Certainly the topic of gender identity and non-conformity is worthy of discussion and analysis, as it has entered mainstream conscience in less than one generation. As anxiety and confusion exists everywhere, well-meaning conversation can take a wrong turn quickly, and I personally believe we just need and deserve a better guidance than this film is willing to provide. Mainly, as there’s a lot of the stumbling and backtracking that comes with such uncharted territory—an authentic, conversational messiness we rarely see on screen.
For better or worse, the message rings clear, even if only in an oversimplified way that turns the film into more of an entry into having people question their parenting methods and examine which actions are done out of convenience and which are done for the long-term good of their children.
The challenges of parenthood are far beyond, that includes judgmental friends and relatives, and the competitive nature of comparisons, are beyond obvious in most every scene. Even Alex’s mother is passive-aggressive in her judgments of Alex quitting her job as a lawyer to stay home with her son, while Judy, Jake’s teacher and counselor to the Wheelers during the application process, has a twist designed to elicit more judgment and discrimination. Here, Judy’s sexual orientation is so irrelevant there’s even an argument about how irrelevant it is. They also get a brief interaction with a truly intolerant person, played by Aasif Mandvi, who plays his character broadly enough to be seen from space. We know how the film wants us to feel about him because he takes the time to mock a trans celebrity.
By the mid-section of this film, it has become the sort of marital study where all we do is observe Alex say cruel things to her Greg. When she initially starts to needle and verbally attack him, it feels as if Alex is inevitably reacting to all of the aggressive verbal taunts she has to endure from her mother, but as the film goes on and Alex keeps on deriding Greg, the narrative doesn’t expand but contracts, and this isn’t helped by the nervous, peremptory editing of all the confrontation scenes, which seeks to create a tense atmosphere for the actors rather than letting them take care of that themselves. Even when Judy tells them that they are lucky to be dealing with this situation in 2018 and not 50 or even 20 years ago, Alex doesn’t realize that she is not as liberal as she thought she was when it comes to her own son. By the time Alex is blaming Greg for not ever taking Jake to a park or throwing a ball with him, Alex has managed to become a woman just as unlikable as her mother.
But the main problem here is that director Howard and writer Pearle never quite make this a film you fully care about, as the stakes are just often too low, and there’s often just not much of Jake. Apparently, the original play didn’t even have the child seen as a character, which writer Pearle clearly prefers. In fact, the whole thing still feels a bit on the stagey side, as neither director Howard nor writer Pearle figure out a way to make this cinematic, and there are more than a few scenes where the interactions and dialogue between characters feel like they each exist separately rather than feeling connected. Sure, there is an intimate, humble quality to the film that makes it impossible to completely hate. As the film wants to start a conversation and its well-intentioned nature may be enough to win over most cynics. But, deeply and respectfully, despite the film having its heart at the right place, it is not enough. It’s important to not make light of an issue where passions run high. After all, enough people around the world are doing that already. That being said, a compelling film still needs to be crafted around it.
Here, the stakes are low, the characters are simple, and the narrative thrust is light, in the end it’s just a film that doesn’t add up to a complete package. Thankfully, both Claire Danes (Homeland) and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) excel in their roles. While Danes continues to show why she’s such an underrated actress, while Parsons makes the case for bigger screen roles. Danes is the passionate one, while Parsons is the calm one. As a parental unit, they work. Both characters deserved to be explored more, but the actors do their part. They also have a compelling supporting cast around them that includes Ann Dowd, Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, and the scene stealing Amy Landecker. On the whole, ‘A Kid Like Jake‘ deserves admiration for its simplicity and truthfulness, but considering the scope its single-minded approach and low stakes, leave a lot to be desired.
Directed – Silas Howard
Rated – PG
Run Time – 92 minutes