A Kid Like Jake may be a statement film, but it whispers its message rather than shouts it. Trans director Silas Howard and screenwriter Daniel Pearle, adapting the script from his own play, remain a step removed from its subject of a 4-year-old boy whose parents struggle to deal with his “gender-expansive play.” This distance sometimes serves to render the matter as seemingly inconsequential. But mostly the light touch is refreshing, an approach that says the issue is just another one of many that must be weighed when raising a child.
The story’s prompt is kindergarten applications. Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) are in a panic after their neighborhood gets rezoned, meaning that their son, Jake (Leo James Davis), can no longer attend the public school they had moved there for. The new school is subpar, so they’re thrown into the world of competitive education, writing essays and sitting through interviews and having Jake play in what are essentially toddler tryouts. With thousands of New Yorkers applying to the best schools, any slip-up could spell denial.
Jake’s pre-K teacher, Judy (Octavia Spencer), is coaching Alex through the process and suggests they highlight his penchant for playing Rapunzel rather than G.I. Joe. Greg initially approves, thinking they should frame it as Jake not feeling limited to gender norms rather than straight-out saying he prefers to be feminine. With their eyes now focused on this facet of their son’s personality, the couple begin a film-length conversation—often a loud one—about how to handle it.
Pearle fleshes out the story with a surprise pregnancy, a history of miscarriage, a judgmental mother (Ann Dowd), the controversial decision to give up a career to stay home with a child, and whether a teacher’s sexuality influences how she perceives Jake. Throughout, there are arguments that are about as realistic and bitter as they come: Alex’s indirect accusation that Judy has an agenda behind her advice is full of fury, and a protracted fight with Greg houses the kind of can’t-take-it-back barbs that will elicit “oof”s from the audience. Both are gloriously bilious.
As the application process wears on and the couple tune in to the difficulties Jake has been facing because of his choices—at his birthday party, for example, another child calls him a “flag”—the question becomes whether they should label their child when he’s yet to label himself. There’s also the matter of exactly how open-minded they actually are, with Alex leveling an accusation that Greg hasn’t been the model of masculinity and Judy mildly chastising him at his response to Jake’s question about why women can wear pants but men can’t wear skirts: “So you didn’t tell him there are men who do wear dresses in our culture?” These conversations remain expository, however; Howard rarely shows us Jake engaging in the behavior everyone’s talking about.
Danes and Parsons give thoroughly lived-in performances though they don’t exactly work as a couple, their TV roles being too obvious specters. Spencer, like she did in The Shape of Water, plays the supportive friend ably, though she injects her character with prickliness when necessary. Besides a slightly, and annoyingly, wavering camera, Howard directs without fanfare, with nothing to distract from the matter at hand. Though you might wish he’d leaned in a bit more, his delicate treatment is ultimately analogous to the approach that’s arguably best for a kid like Jake.
A Kid Like Jake opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.