“A Kid Like Jake” stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and three-time Emmy winner Claire Danes, which suggests high-quality source material. And, the suggestion is accurate: Based on the eponymous play by Daniel Pearle and directed by Silas Howard (“Transparent,” “Pose”), “A Kid Like Jake” is a trans-focused film with an out trans director. It’s not the first, but certainly the highest-profile project of its kind. (For a look at the first, check out Howard’s seminal debut film, “By Hook or by Crook,” from 2001.)
“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Danes said. “The script was so beautiful, and these ideas are immediately relevant to me. At that point the parallels were very striking [as] a New York mom of a four-year-old [who] had just gone through that gauntlet of applying to schools.”
“A Kid Like Jake” takes a unique approach to the story of a gender non-conforming child named Jake (Leo James Davis), who prefers the company of princesses and tutus to trucks and football. The movie shrewdly focuses on the parents, Alex (Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons, whose production company shepherded the project), as they navigate the harrowing process of applying to New York City’s private schools. When their preschool guidance counselor, Judy (Spencer), suggests they lean into Jake’s “gender-expansive play” in their applications, it causes them to reflect on their obligation as parents.
“When I first read the script, I was pretty judgmental of Alex. She is the most rigid, and she responds to this idea that he might be seen as other in a very defensive way,” said Danes. “One of the reasons why it’s such terrific writing is because every character is right, in a way. She makes good arguments too, and I think it’s fair to worry that maybe, you know, we’re leaping to conclusions about who he is and making judgments prematurely.”
Judy, on the other hand, sees Jake as a highly creative and imaginative child, and her gentle nudging provides the perfect foil to Alex’s rigidity. “The little boy is fine. He knows that he likes to play dress-up. He knows that he likes Cinderella. He knows that he likes glittery, sparkly, beautiful things. It’s the parents who then start projecting their ideas of who he should be,” Spencer told IndieWire.
Though Spencer said she has many gay friends (“my family”), trans issues were new to her: “There was so much that I didn’t know. I’d heard ‘gender non-conforming.’ I didn’t really know what that meant. I’d heard ‘gender-expansive play.’ When it’s not a part of your world, sometimes you don’t realize you don’t even think about it. But when you’re confronted with it, you need to think about it, you need to understand that this is someone else’s reality. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m learning something that I didn’t even realize I didn’t know.’ I also thought I was a very tolerant person, but this is a whole different area.”
As one of eight black actresses to ever win an Academy Award, it’s no surprise that Spencer understands the power of marginalized identities receiving onscreen representation. “To me, when things are demystified, it makes us no longer afraid of them,” she said. “The more we talk about it, the more it will demystify whatever it is, and people can feel normal and that there’s not anything wrong with being different.”
Judy also happens to be a lesbian, but it not revealed until a pivotal moment in the film, when Alex suggests that her sexuality is the reason she’s “pushing” gender non-conformity onto Jake. “I like the reveal, because the fact that she is gay in her mind didn’t have anything to do with how she saw Jake,” Spencer said. “That’s just a part of who she is, and as an educator she sees everything every day. So, to notice his behavior, she just thought that the parents also knew that Jake was gender-fluid, but obviously they didn’t.”
IFC Films released “A Kid Like Jake” in theaters on June 1.