Claire Danes is a revelation, flipping the script on gender-based parenting norms. At the film’s centre is how a marriage endures opposing beliefs on their non-conforming child, not the actual child. If you wanted the latter, then you’re hoping for a different film.
I didn’t have high hopes for A Kid Like Jake when I sat down and watched it over 5 months ago. From the Rotten Tomatoes score alone, it screamed wait for the digital release if you absolutely had to see Sheldon from television’s The Big Bang Theory go highbrow. I am here to tell you to ignore the low RT score and the nit-picky reason why the experts were telling you to skip it, because they missed the point entirely.
When Greg (Jim Parsons) and Alex (Homeland’s Claire Danes) try to find the right school for their son, Jake, they are up to their ears in debt and trying to make ends meet. The last thing they thought they would have to deal with is being told by their child’s adviser Judy (Olivia Spencer) that he is something deemed gender-expansive (a wider, more flexible range of gender identity). It is hard enough to find a private school within their budget, and now they must find one that specializes in something they were unprepared for that has caught them off-guard.
Has it really caught them off guard, or was it always in the back of their minds? Alex noticed before that Jake re-watches Disney films that centre on female heroines, and often dresses up like them. He wears skirts, tiaras, and carries a magic wand, instead of playing with a football, toy guns, or GI Joe (I mean, it’s a doll anyway, right?). Is it just a phase? That’s what Greg thinks, while Alex feels they are labelling their son prematurely; after all, he is only 4-years old.
A Kid Like Jake asks some tough questions on how to parent a child who is gender-expansive, with great insight and a deft touch, without delving into the melodramatics. No parent wants their child to be teased or made to feel different, but a child without familial support has a greater chance of depression, homelessness, mental health disorders and suicide.
What makes director Silas Howard’s (mostly known for directing a handful of episodes of Amazon’s Transparent) film start to crackle is when the emotions are too much to bare as they bubble to the surface, and Jake’s parents aren’t the only ones with an opinion. Whether Judy has her own agenda, or their close friend Amal’s (Priyanka Chopra) private family thoughts come out in the untimeliest of ways, or when Alex and Greg finally exchange emotional blows, A Kid Like Jake builds up the tension step-by-step until there is no other choice but to look at the issue with their eyes wide open.
The script was adapted for the screen by Daniel Pearl, from his play of the same name. Some might find it too much based in theatre and not cinematic enough; particularly when dealing with A Kid Like Jake, you rarely get to see the world through Jake’s eyes, or at all really. What was missed by most is the point; this film is about how a couple’s marriage endures conflicting beliefs on how to parent their non-traditional, non-conforming child, not the actual child. If you wanted that, then you are making an entirely different film (and a very hard one to pull off).
This is an actor’s film and Claire Danes is a revelation, playing a character that flips the script on gender-based parenting norms. Her character is abrasive, annoying, even abusive, as she deals with the anxiety of not knowing how to raise her child. Alex is so much more than the standard “lean against a door frame, then look concerned, disapproving, or supportive of a man’s trouble” role that most actress are saddled with. It’s a powerhouse performance.
Then you have Jim Parsons, who continues to show his range and why he shouldn’t be type-cast as a nerd or IT-guy. In Hidden Figures, he showed us a darker side with his character’s views on race and gender politics. In The Normal Heart, I was taken aback by zero hint of his Sheldon mannerisms by playing an openly gay man who likes to crack-wise, and drop f-bombs without regret, and yet, ultimately, is more caring than we knew (the scene where he hugs an upset stranger whose friend has died of AIDS is very moving). When Alex and Greg sit down with Judy and talk about Jake, he gives Judy a deeply expressive look of helplessness and acceptance; they say acting is listening, and he delivers everything you need to know within that moment.
A Kid Like Jake might not be a film mass audiences want to watch, since it will raise questions many might be uncomfortable with not just discussing, but looking at themselves in the mirror and considering. Ultimately, the film is directed with a deft touch, written with great insight, and contains a couple of terrific performances from its lead; don’t let this one pass you by.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.