Film Review: ‘A Kid Like Jake’ Talks Around Its Title Character

Independent cinema has always been ahead of Hollywood when tackling social issues on the big screen. “A Kid Like Jake” centers around a potentially transgender young child, and does so in a gentle way. Too gentle, in fact. A low key family drama in need of more reason to exist, the film is a missed opportunity. It’s well acted, but you never fully feel the narrative weight of the story. The title character is barely seen, the plight of his parents are inconsistent, and the movie just seems to pull punches. It works best as an acting showcase for its parental leads, but it clearly wanted to be more than that.

“A Kid Like Jake” wants to start a conversation. Deeply respectful, the film has its heart in the right place. Still, that’s not enough. It’s important to not make light of an issue where passions run high. After all, enough people in American government 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. It’s just a movie that doesn’t add up to a complete package.

The Wheeler family is leading a good life in Brooklyn. Alex (Claire Danes) is a former attorney and Greg (Jim Parsons) is a therapist, with their four year old son Jake (Leo James Davis) the light of their life. It’s no big deal to them that he’s more interested in dolls than toy cars, or that he wears a skirt while playing. That’s just Jake expressing himself, and they fully support it. More concerning to them is the insanely competitive school placement system in New York City, as Jake graduates from preschool. How can they make their son stand out and get in to one of the best schools? It seems like if they fail here, they could be setting their child up for issues throughout his childhood. The pressure is intense.

With this question on their minds, Jake’s preschool director (Octavia Spencer) makes a suggestion. Perhaps they should mention his gender nonconformity on his applications? This strikes them both in very different ways, as frays begin to form in their relationship. Worrying about Jake and whether they’re giving him an identity he didn’t ask for, or isn’t ready for, draws out other issues between them. It all leads to a fight that shocks them both to their core. Of course, it has very little to do with Jake, but then again, that’s sort of par for the course here.

The highlight of the film is watching Claire Danes and Jim Parsons. Both of them have rarely been better. The former continues to show why she’s such an underrated actress, while the latter makes the case for more big 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. Parsons especially is surprisingly good. Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” this is not. As for Octavia Spencer, she’s pretty much wasted, sadly. As for Leo James Davis, he’s closer to a prop than anything else.

Also in the cast are Ann Dowd as Jake’s grandmother, someone who puts all kinds of pressure on Alex. Dowd is solid, giving realistic life to what’s on the page a generically awful mother/grandma. There are also small parts for Priyanka Chopra, Amy Landecker (who is great but is part of a needless subplot), and Aasif Mandvi, among others. It’s a really nice ensemble, casting wise. That being said, it’s all about Danes and Parsons here.

Director Silas Howard and writer Daniel Pearle (adapting his own play) never quite make “A Kid Like Jake” a movie you fully care about. The stakes are just often too low. There’s often just not much of Jake. The original play didn’t even have the child seen as a character, which Pearle clearly prefers. In fact, the whole thing still feels a bit on the stagey side. Neither Howard nor Pearle figures out a way to make this cinematic. It’s almost as if the concept of a film about a potentially trans young child was all they thought through. The actual movie just doesn’t offer enough.

Overall, “A Kid Like Jake” can be labeled an interesting failure. The acting is strong and the goals are admirable. Still, it needed an effective movie around those things, and we didn’t get that. What we got instead are the bare bones of something. Especially considering where things are left at the end, there was so much more that could have been explored. Fans of Danes or Parsons may find enough here as a simple acting showcase. Other than that, the film just comes up short.

“A KID LIKE JAKE” IS DISTRIBUTED BY IFC FILMS AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON JUNE 1.

GRADE: (★★½)