Film Review: A Kid Like Jake

There are some very impressive acting moments in this investigation into the parenting of a special child, but the dramatic payoff comes too late, after a lot of enervating palaver.
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What goes on with A Kid Like Jake would once have easily been referred to as a problem. Not any more. For in this age of gender-fluidity acceptance—especially among certain segments of the well-heeled liberal populace situated in New York environs like Park Slope and the Upper West Side—the word “problem” is strictly verboten. Here, Jake (pretty, charmingly inner-directed Leo James Davis) likes to wear dresses and pretend he’s any one of the Disney princesses. Actually, he not only likes, but insists on, doing these things and in fact having his own way always. His tantrums—as well as what is now considered the proper response to the transgendered—have cowed his parents, Alex (Clare Danes), who gave up her law career for motherhood, and psychiatrist Greg Wheeler (Jim Parsons), into an acceptance of this difference, almost before either of them has had the chance to think it all out.

If only families could exist in a bubble, for the Wheelers are trying to place Jake in a good early school and, although he has shown concrete signs of intelligence and potential, they are not having much luck in having him accepted anywhere, which might just have to do with these childhood life choices. (Might he be forced—horrors!—into going to public school?) These are the things that put-upon school counselor Judy (Octavia Spencer, taking bureaucratic forbearance to the limit) would love to tell them, but can’t. And then, one day, she does.

From Daniel Pearle’s script, based on his 2013 play, director Silas Howard has made this film with evident deep sincerity and intelligence, taking care to properly present the complexity and confusion of characters who themselves are often reluctant pioneers of a more recently minted brand of parenting. Neither is particularly pro or con about their son’s effeminacy, but both of them are much too afraid of saying the wrong thing. Unfortunately, however much they try to accept and see things positively, friends and family can sometimes be (often unwittingly) insensitive, if not downright offensive. The result is a lot of talk about the subject—too much, for the film gets bogged down in a helluva lot of verbiage, much of it repetitive. It surely would have benefited and been enriched by more focus on Jake—his world, his vision of things—but in a scriptwriter’s fillip, he has much less footage than nearly every other character. This conceit might have worked better on the stage—the changeling child as an enigma—but cinema, in all its natural, more wide-ranging comprehensiveness, needs more.

Greg and Alex are a sometimes puzzling couple—he seems so gay, which is briefly addressed, and she so angry, so tightly wound. Danes and Parsons have an acting field day—especially Danes—in combustible scenes of strife that have the intensity of Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. (Wealthy Caucasian lives can be often awful, too.) Two standout sequences are especially upsetting: a scene in a luxe restaurant in which friends get excoriated for their well-meaning concern, as it’s the wrong kind of concern. Haute bourgeois political correctness provides both the drama and the comedy her. The discomfited hush that follows faux pas committed in this oversensitive universe is, therefore, all the more hilarious to any urbanite familiar with the sometimes not-so-nice niceties of gender discourse. The final throwing off of any paltry, modish cultural constraints, exposing the terror and insecurity that lurk beneath all that lacquered liberal surface, is what happens in the second scene I refer to, when Alex and Greg have a final (stunningly acted) showdown that could well lead to divorce.

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