Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake, adapted for the screen by Daniel Pearle from his own play, takes on the subject of early childhood gender nonconformity. Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are a Brooklyn couple with a young son, Jake (Leo James Davis), whose interest in things considered typically feminine is more than just curiosity. The film tracks the couple’s grappling with their child’s gender identity, revealing how their initial acceptance of Jake’s “uniqueness” avoided confronting it directly. But while A Kid Like Jake makes the important point that even the most liberal parents’ acceptance of a child’s difference may be repression by another name, it fails to excite sufficient sympathy for its broadly drawn principal characters.
A Kid Like Jake’s narrative is centered around Alex and Greg as they try to find a spot for Jake in a private school with the help of a preschool teacher, Judy (Octavia Spencer). Most of Howard’s film consists of conversations between adults, set in the upper-middle-class urban environs that Jake’s parents inhabit: well-furnished apartments, expensive restaurants, and preschool offices. It opens in a very different space, however, with oblique glances into the life of four-year-old Jake. Unsteadily focused shots introduce viewers to the hazy world of childhood play—in this case, the interior of a blanket fort composed of various linens. Like the constantly racking focus, the editing of this scene doesn’t adopt a definitive point of view. The sequence of shots doesn’t follow Jake’s movements, but rather is a series of isolated peeks inside the blanket fort as Jake playfully tumbles in and out of frame.
A Kid Like Jake adopts this unanchored perspective on the very few occasions it returns to Jake’s world, evoking the inchoate quality of childhood identity and the ongoing formation of that identity in play. It’s one of the film’s more thematically interesting and visually unconventional ideas. But this opening sequence turns out to be one of the rare times that Jake is even seen in the film; indeed, when major plot developments hinge on the child acting out at school, Jake mostly remains an off-screen subject of discussion. The film’s primary focus, instead, is on Alex and Greg’s struggle to negotiate their reactions to Jake’s gender fluidity, which eventually degenerates into arguments and mutual recriminations between the couple.
Despite Alex and Greg’s difficult time handling questions around Jake’s gender identity, the film wants us to know that they aren’t bad people. It emphasizes their basic decency by presenting them with a series of obvious foils. The impassive Greg, a therapist, isn’t emotionally detached and cynical—at least not yet—like one of his patients (Amy Landecker), while Alex is nothing like her overbearing, guilt-tripping mother (Ann Dowd). And neither one of them evinces the sexism and homophobia of the man (Aasif Mandvi) who’s dating their friend Amal (Priyanka Chopra). The manner in which Alex and Greg are defined in relation to these characters—which is to say, by what they aren’t—is too blatant to be effective. In the end, their inner lives aren’t palpable enough for the eventual acrimony between them to feel real, as in a climactic fight in which they exchange banal lines such as “This is hard for me too.”
Centering Alex and Greg may have worked well in Pearle’s play. But here, the characters are too anodyne to compel much interest by themselves. The story’s dramatic developments might have carried emotional weight had the filmmakers captured more of the couple’s relationship with Jake—or, quite simply, featured more of Jake. The film ultimately suffers from the lack of interaction between the parents and their child, especially given how unimaginatively it sketches those parents’ world. In the end, A Kid Like Jake feels like a scenario from a textbook about handling a child’s gender nonconformity: simplified, depersonalized, and emotionally unconvincing.