In “A Kid Like Jake,” Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play Alex and Greg Wheeler, a Brooklyn couple embarking on the perilous, ruthless business of applying to local schools on behalf of their 4-year-old son, Jake.
In New York, of course, getting into kindergarten is tantamount to blood sport, and the Wheelers — who aren’t poor, but aren’t exactly rich, either — need every advantage they can get. While Alex is seeking advice from Jake’s preschool principle, Judy (Octavia Spencer), Judy diplomatically suggests that they stress Jake’s singular qualities on their applications, which in this case have to do with his preference of dresses to pants, Disney princesses to superheroes, pink to blue.
The crux of “A Kid Like Jake” isn’t parental anxiety around a gender-nonconforming child, or the drama of a toddler trying to communicate his feelings to adults, although those issues come into play. Rather, it’s the ethical quandary faced by two thoughtful people who want to acknowledge and support their son’s emerging identity but not exploit it for gain or pin it down while it’s still in formation. That’s an intriguing premise that takes “A Kid Like Jake” out of conventional, daytime-special sentimentality, and the distinctive gifts of Danes and Parsons — her sharp edges, his self-effacing, un-macho persona — fit perfectly into the film’s implicit questions regarding societal norms and the fluid spectrum we call selfhood.
Directed with grace and humor by Silas Howard, from a script that Daniel Pearle adapted from his play of the same name, “A Kid Like Jake” benefits from a sensitive, even-tempered tone, as well as terrific supporting performances from Spencer, Ann Dowd (as Alex’s status-obsessed mom) and a scene-stealing Amy Landecker, who plays an ambivalent therapy client of Greg’s.
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Oddly enough, the only thing missing from the film is its title character. Jake, portrayed in a sweetly beguiling turn by Leo James Davis, is seen mostly in brief, impressionistic moments while he is playing make-believe in a gauzy fort or reading along with his mom. At one point, Alex observes that Jake is clearly relating to Ariel, the little mermaid who pointedly has no voice for most of her own story. The same could be said for a movie in which the predicaments of parents — philosophical, emotional, marital — take precedence over the child who’s continually described, but never really seen.
“A Kid Like Jake” is coming from an unassailably benevolent place, but it insists on holding its nominal protagonist at frustrating arm’s length. It’s like the Alex-and-Greg of woke-era problem pictures: bright, earnest and compassionate, if maybe just a little too much in its own head.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
‘A Kid Like Jake’
Rated R for some language