Sugar and spice and all things nice, but with a big dash of vinegar, too. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons star as a Brooklyn couple facing the possibility that their four-year-old might be trans in Silas Howard’s comedy drama.
Claire Danes and Jim Parsons star as one-time lawyer Alex and therapist Greg, New York City parents struggling in different ways to process what their four-year-old son’s preference for dressing up in skirts and playing with so-called girls’ toys might signify about his gender identity in the simply lovely comedy-drama A Kid Like Jake. Adapted for the screen by Daniel Pearle from his own play, the film strives to present an even-handed account of the couple’s increasingly divergent views, with Alex resistant to “putting a label” on their child, and Greg more open to embracing Jake’s transgender nature.
Director Silas Howard, trans himself, elicits superb performances not just from the leads but from the crack cast of supports, which includes Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, Ann Dowd and, in an especially vivid turn as a neurotic patient, Amy Landecker from Transparent, a show for which Howard has directed several episodes. In fact, the deployment of that Transparent house style — with its overlapping dialogue, dodging and weaving camerawork and a milieu that centers around an assortment of lovable-vile boho-bougie characters — makes this feel almost like an East Coast spinoff of Jill Soloway’s award-winning series.
Although they live comfortably in a spacious Brooklyn duplex, like so many young New Yorkers Alex and Greg still don’t have enough to afford the astronomical costs of sending gifted Jake to a private school next year when he starts kindergarten. Luckily, they’re good friends with Judy (Spencer), the director of the local preschool where Jake is now, who gives them sound advice on the complex game theory they need to play to get a scholarship for Jake.
Alex throws herself into the time-consuming project, drawing on the skills and naturally ambitious drive that must have made her a good lawyer before she gave up practicing to be a full-time mother. Greg, absorbed with his patients and role as breadwinner for the moment, lets Alex take the lead on the private-school project. When Alex discovers she’s pregnant, a source of joy but also anxiety given she had a miscarriage not long ago, the stakes feel even higher.
Like so many progressive, liberal-minded parents today, Alex and Greg have always tried to be supportive of their child’s desires and interests. They’ve been mindful not to impose gender norms on him with toy trucks and train-themed Thomas & Friends when he clearly expresses a preference for dolls, pretending to be a princess, and watching Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. But when Judy suggests they emphasize Jake’s “gender nonconforming play” in their applications as a positive, hinting that they could work the diversity angle to their advantage, Alex at first balks, hesitant to embrace what the title phrase, “a kid like Jake,” might really mean.
Greg isn’t an expert in child psychology, but he’s more open to the idea that Jake’s femininity might be a sign of a more deep-seated, possibly immutable trans identity, which, according to a growing body of opinion, needs to be accepted and dealt with sensitively to help Jake be the happiest child he can be. Although Jake’s best friend, Sanjay (Rhys Bhatia), the son of Alex’s good friend Amal (Priyanka Chopra), accepts Jake as he is unquestioningly, already other kids have started to call Jake names (such as “flag,” a childish mispronunciation of the word “fag”) and he’s reacted angrily, getting into fights that may negatively affect his chances of getting into a private school.
Howard and Pearle take scrupulous pains to be fair to Alex, who becomes, as the story goes on, the only one arguing that Jake is just going through a phase. Clearly, the film is on the side of trans identity being a born-with-you thing, visible in childhood (a position some viewers may disagree with). But Alex isn’t evil or anything, just a mother struggling to understand a child she didn’t expect she would have. It helps that Danes is such an inherently sympathetic performer, able to project a signature mix of fierce intelligence and high-maintenance fragility, not entirely unlike the character she plays on Homeland. On the other hand, Parsons gets an opportunity here to assay a character very different from the nerdy, autistic Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, a heterosexual man so very in touch with his own feelings and nurturing capacities that Alex, in a doozy of a marital shouting match at the film’s climax, practically accuses him of turning Jake trans by being so effeminate himself.
Again like Transparent, the hyper-articulate, sometimes selfishly honest people depicted here (shout-out is also due to Ann Dowd as Alex’s monstrously competitive mother) aren’t afraid to express their darkest, cruelest thoughts or, fully conversant in the contemporary psychoanalytic idiom even if they’re not shrinks themselves, to perceive negative feelings that may or may not be there in other people around them. It’s all about infinitely fine shades of nuance, a sophistication that sometimes gets in the way of simply loving in an open-hearted way, childlike in the best sense of the word — like little Jake.