Four-year-old Jake Wheeler (Leo James Davis) isn’t like the other kids who are applying for a spot at one of New York City’s ultra-competitive private pre-schools. For one thing, he’s a lot more developmentally advanced than most of them, his cognitive and fine-motor skills putting him in the 96th percentile for his age group. For another, he loves to wear frilly princess dresses and pretend that he’s Rapunzel when he plays with his friends. He owns not one, but two separate copies of “Enchanted” on DVD, and his favorite movie of all-time is “The Little Mermaid” (not that there’s all that much hyper-masculine cinema out there for toddlers).
Jake’s Park Slope parents, Alex and Greg (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons), are happy to indulge their son’s “gender-expansive play” in the privacy of their own home, but how should they handle this in public? At his birthday party? During those weird pre-school interviews?
Suddenly, one aspect of their son’s identity starts to define him, leading to more difficult questions with much greater consequences. Is this just a phase, or is Jake trying to tell the world who he is? Would it be wrong to heed the suggestion of Jake’s lesbian nursery teacher (Octavia Spencer) and play the diversity card by highlighting their son’s non-conforming behavior on his pre-school applications, even if it might lead the other students to label him for it? And — perhaps most pressing of all — how do parents of kids like Jake reconcile the natural desire to support their children with the instinctive need to protect them from a cruel and prejudiced world?
These are not easy questions for a hyper-liberal Brooklyn couple who think of themselves as allies to the LGBTQ community, and Silas Howard’s new film is nothing if not well-attuned to the difference between the purity of sharing the right values and the messiness of actually living with them. Adapted by screenwriter Daniel Pearle from his play of the same name, “A Kid Like Jake” is an unfussy drama that leverages one of the most bougie conflicts imaginable — “we have to spare our child the indignities of public school!” — into a sensitive and nuanced portrait of modern parenting that boasts a much broader appeal than its setting might suggest. This is very much a “White People Problems” movie, but it’s also a lot more than that.
Nevertheless, “A Kid Like Jake” certainly takes its time in shaking off the feeling that it’s not just a well-intentioned PSA for 21st century parents. Pearle’s script admirably tries to make this story feel much bigger than it ever could on stage, but the movie flounders whenever it tries to pad out the sharp conversation scenes from the original version, or provide them with new context. Subplots and supporting material generally distract from the crux of the story, regardless of whether or not they were in the play.
Ann Dowd is always a welcome sight, and her role as Alex’s iron-willed mother helps texture that character’s stress, but other detours contribute little to the cause. Greg is a therapist, and the film flatlines every time it cuts back to his lightly comic sessions with a patient (Amy Landecker) who’s having marital problems of her own.
These passages can be particularly enervating when processed through Howard’s flat visual approach, the director’s anonymous style at odds with his self-evident concern for the material. Approximately 15 of the opening 30 minutes are devoted to establishing shots of New York City (only a slight exaggeration), the views so random that every cut makes it harder to pinpoint where the Wheelers actually live. That may seem like a petty gripe, but it’s indicative of a single-issue movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself whenever Jake isn’t the center of attention.
Jake has the same problem, though Howard finds a much better solution for him. Smartly handling a character who never appears on stage in Pearle’s play, “A Kid Like Jake” makes its title character a real but elusive presence. We see him just enough to appreciate the weight of what’s at stake — Howard chasing the young actor around with handheld shots that capture his rambunctiousness — but also so infrequently that we feel how little agency a child has at that point in their life, and how many of their choices are made for them. The burden lies with the parents, and so naturally this film does as well.
Fortunately, Danes and Parsons are more than strong enough to shoulder it, even though (and especially when) their characters struggle to maintain their confidence in themselves and each other. Danes is wholly convincing as a stay-at-home mother who’s struggling to navigate between what’s best for Jake and what’s best for his applications; growing increasingly tetchy over the course of the film, her anger is layered and raw and always well-earned. Parsons matches her pound-for-pound, playing Greg as a helpless dad whose psychoanalytic passiveness isn’t as effective at home as it is at work. Greg is a little more relaxed about Jake’s behavior, and when push comes to shove Alex blames him for their son’s effeminate nature (casting Greg with an openly gay actor isn’t just a meta shorthand, it also makes that accusation feel twice as cruel).
And blame is where the Wheelers eventually wind up, their frustrations boiling into a brutal yelling match in which they both foam at the mouth with unspoken resentment, re-aggravated loss, and newfound anxiety over how ill-prepared the world still is for a kid like Jake. It’s a scene that trembles with hurt, that feels beautifully written but also inescapably urgent. It’s also a scene that augers the difficulties that may be down the road; for them, for Jake, and for anyone out there who might find themselves in a similar position. This might be the start of a long and winding path, but it’s no small thing for “A Kid Like Jake” to so clearly illustrate how love is always going to be the path of least resistance.
“A Kid Like Jake” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.