In the new drama A Kid Like Jake, parents become a problem long before the titular kid is met with any resistance from his own. At a get-together celebrating her brother’s promotion, Alex (Claire Danes) finds herself in the kitchen with her mother, Catherine (Ann Dowd), who mourns her lost potential. Alex gave up her career as an attorney to raise her son, and Catherine is pushing for her return to the workforce, but as a decades-old photo reminds the disappointed mother, she’s also still sore about Alex’s failure to pursue her “natural talent” for dance. “She’s humble,” Catherine explains to a family friend when Alex waves this away, then barks out an incredulous laugh. “Where’d she get that?”
The question of where Alex’s son got his defining traits—his stubborn streak, but more pertinently for his parents, his love of pink skirts and Cinderella—and whether they should be cultivated or quashed for his own good, becomes the crux of A Kid Like Jake. Alex and her husband, Greg (Jim Parsons), a psychologist, are happy for Jake to express himself as he sees fit within their home. When the couple’s friend and preschool director Judy (Octavia Spencer) hints that his “gender-expansive play” might help him stand out in a sea of applicants to Manhattan’s elite (and expensive) private schools, they reluctantly include it in their admissions essay. But as Alex and Greg fret over Jake’s future, what this 4-year-old does now seems to take on outsize importance, both with respect to the education he receives and his own identity.
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. And fortunately, the thin premise (I remain skeptical that Jake’s love of dress-up time would really give him an advantage with admissions) soon gives way to meatier characters and concerns. The story is also brought down to earth by charmingly naturalistic dialogue and performances from Danes and Parsons in particular. Characters reach for nonexistent expressions (Greg, grasping for some apex of masculinity, describes his son as “not exactly Johnny Basketball”), cut each other off, and dance around things they don’t know how to articulate fully or fairly. There’s a lot of the stumbling and backtracking that comes with such uncharted territory—an authentic, conversational messiness we rarely see on screen.
The adaptation of Pearle’s short play as a feature-length film demanded some additions, and Alex’s friend Amal (an excellent Priyanka Chopra) is a welcome and effective one, particularly during a double date that goes from awkward to excruciating. Greg’s lone patient, Sandra, and nightmare colleague Laurel (who subscribes to Arthur Janov’s school of “scream therapy”) are decidedly less so. While Sandra lands a few solid one-liners, she often feels like something spliced in from a different film entirely.
Perhaps more notable is what this version of the script leaves out: The word transgender never makes it into the movie, which is deliberately coy about what Jake’s nonconformity might mean, skirting around the subject as his parents do. Jake’s tastes are “particular.” He has a “unique expression” and is repeatedly praised for his “creative play.” (The adults’ packaging of this behavior calls to mind another recent unruly cinema kid, Tully’s Jonah, perennially described—to his mother’s exasperation—as “quirky.”) Howard, a trans man himself, is taking on what has been a hot-button issue dominated mostly by cis voices, i.e., how to raise a gender-nonconforming child in an era when trans kids are articulating their identities from an earlier age. But Jake never does so overtly, leaving the audience and the adults in his life to interpret his actions themselves—actions we see less and less of as his parents’ disagreements spiral out of control, and the child whose identity they’re debating fades from our view and theirs.
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. But in another sense, the ambiguity works. Had Jake said, as he does in the play, that his “birthday wish” was to be a girl—or had Alex made scathing references to the prospect of medical transition in a moment of panic and outrage—this might have been a very different film. As things stand, only Amal’s boorish date is clumsy enough to make the jump to Caitlyn Jenner. These are nervous parents talking around the possible “issue” in the way they often do in real life: too scared, even during the climactic fight that constitutes one of the film’s rawest and most brilliant scenes, to name exactly what it is they fear.
The softening of Danes’ character—who nonetheless pulls no punches during that argument—also serves a purpose. Divorced from some of those uglier impulses, we can believe her as someone who simply wants to do right by her child. She readily indulges Jake’s Disney princess obsession until he wants to share it with the outside world, at which point she panics about the way he might be perceived or boxed in. “What if someone says something—or even a funny look?” she asks at one point. “It’s our job to protect him.” As Jake’s resolve strengthens, she has to grapple with what to do when the societal constraints that might punish him for it are wrong.
Ultimately, A Kid Like Jake becomes an examination of parenting as a process of recalibration and release: While Catherine is unable to let go of Alex-as-ballet-prodigy and Alex-as-attorney, investing her daughter’s earlier interests and pursuits with the force of identity, Alex herself leans too far in the other direction, quicker to deny Jake’s instincts than to risk defining him by them. The film, with empathy for all involved—and without didacticism—suggests that all she and Greg have to do is follow their child’s lead.
Refreshingly, they actually do. Howard doesn’t need to make a decisive statement about Jake’s identity; his great triumph is in showing, with understated humor and insight, Alex and Greg’s journey toward living with and embracing that uncertainty. By the film’s final shot, we know exactly how they’ll handle raising “a kid like Jake,” whatever those words come to mean.