A Kid Like Jake isn’t actually about Jake at all. The original play never had Jake on stage; instead, Jake was a character whose activities were discussed by the other characters. Like most children under the age of 5, Jake is an absentee mystery whose life and future are fervently handled by a bunch of adults who may or may not understand the child or their behavior.
The hook of A Kid Like Jake is that Jake, at the age of four, may be expressing signs of homosexuality or gender fluidity. Jake is a hyper-intelligent capable child who insists on engaging in “gender-expansive play” (meaning, he plays with dolls and obsesses over princesses). Playwright Daniel Pearle never pins Jake’s behavior in a definitive manner; that is, he never comes down on whether Jake’s behavior is a phase of semi-conscious rebellion against heternormative gender values or early expressions of gender dysphoria. Whatever the reason, other kids bully Jake for not fitting into society’s roles, and Jake reacts with increasing episodes of anger and aggression.
As mentioned, A Kid Like Jake isn’t actually about Jake. A Kid Like Jake is about everybody else, mostly Jake’s parents. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Jake’s modern liberal Brooklyn-gentrifying parents, Alex and Greg, who find themselves at a crossroads with how to react to Jake’s behavior. While they were an isolated family unit, Alex and Greg went along with Jake’s fancies and feminine preferences with the thought they were healthily breaking gendered norms, not that they were dealing with gender dysphoria. But, Jake’s anger increases even as the Wheelers are contemplating exploiting Jake’s obsession with The Little Mermaid as an example of Jake being an underrepresented minority.
While A Kid Like Jake is technically about the effect of Gender Dysphoria on the intimate relatives, it’s actually about dealing with parenting differences and negotiating how to raise a child when two different value systems come face to face. Claire Danes’ Alex is a controlling aggressive and frequently angry wife while Jim Parsons’ Greg is a passive, accept-everybody, go-along-to-get-along husband. Their parenting styles are natural outgrowths of their personalities as they struggle to do what’s right for their child.
Transgendered director Silas Howard changes the stage play by including glimpses of Jake at play. Jake is in a dress, they watch princess videos; Silas literalizes the behavior previously only spoken of on stage. As such, Jake transforms from a symbol to…well, Jake remains a symbol as they don’t get any spoken dialogue. Jake’s gender dysphoria is treated as a natural outgrowth of childhood, sometimes with glowy narrow-field cinematography emphasizing the nostalgic aspect of Jake’s play. As such, A Kid Like Jake speaks indirectly about gender roles and heteronormative society without directly going for the jugular of dealing with transgendered identity in children. It is firmly about the difficulties of raising a child who doesn’t fit in the approved boxes given by society.
I know this is going to get me ostracized by the community, but I’ve kind of been wanting queer films where other people have to deal with our queerness AND where we’re not demonized for being queer. So many queer films are about queer people leading queer lives or escaping some form of -phobic oppression. When we were (fuck, we still are) underrepresented in mainstream cinema, it was mandatory that we focused on getting our stories in the public. Queer films should be about queer characters. But, as more queer films are created, we could and should find room for the stories of the people whose lives we directly impact (parents, offspring, spouses, etc) while not submitting ourselves to the backseat.
That’s where A Kid Like Jake succeeds. Daniel Pearle’s play is about the people whose lives we directly impact by not following the norms, and Silas Howard subtly layers Jake and their genderfluid behavior so that the queer content can’t be glossed over. Even as the idea is daring, the conversations and arguments are naturalistic and almost wholesome. A Kid Like Jake is missing a few of its barbed edges, as it approaches the content with a humane sentimentality. This is the type of movie where Octavia Spencer shows up as a black lesbian principal to give sage advice to the worrywart rich white couple (side note: is this the role that Octavia Spencer is typecast in? Are these the only roles she is offered? She’s a great actress! Do something more with her!).
For the earnest sensitive movie where parents get into fights about problems with no easy answers, A Kid Like Jake accomplishes what it sets out to do. It confronts parents with “what if” issues, as in “what if your child was transgendered?” By putting Jake in a tutu on the cover, calling itself A Kid Like Jake, and then not really being about Jake, the movie sets itself up for disappointed expectations. Why doesn’t it deal with gender dysphoria in children? Why is it about the parents? Why isn’t Jake in the film more than he is? For what it actually is, it is a sweet and complex film about people trying to do the right thing for the next generation. This is in short supply.