“We went to public school, we turned out alright” says Alex (Claire Danes) in an earlier scene in A Kid Like Jake, a film adaptation of the 2013 play of the same name. It’s a line that strikes a slight nerve, I imagine, for anyone who is a graduate of a public school system. The implication in the comment is that those that attend public school inherently don’t turn out alright and that perhaps she considers herself the exception to an ostensible rule. This is one of many wince-inducing lines throughout this screenplay, the kind that could easily alienate an audience that might otherwise be engaged with the general premise of the story.
The film also stars Jim Parsons. Priyanka Chopra, Ann Dowd and Octavia Spencer play supporting roles. It’s nice to see some star power in something that has a limited release. The plot centers around Jake, a precocious four year old who would prefer to wear skirts, play dolls, and watch Disney princess movies rather than pursue traditional boy interests that some parents might steer their children toward. However, it’s made very clear that Alex and Greg (Danes & Parsons) have taken a very progressive approach to their child’s upbringing and have given him free-range to explore the way in which he expresses himself.
The main conflict of the narrative revolves around Jake’s parents’ concern about his transition from preschool to kindergarten. The exposition is quite clear: they’ve been re-zoned, they’re not happy with their public school option, so how can they get their son into the best school possible? Their quest to do so is the core of the film; we see montages of both Alex and Greg touring different institutions and sitting in on group parent interviews with school officials that posit impossibly unanswerable questions. They are told their chances for qualifying for admission to these places and, on top of that, financial aid, are incredibly slim.
Here is where the film gets into some murky territory with regard to two main elements. To start, the film highlights that Jake, to begin with, has very high in aptitude scores, yet there is constant underlying pressure for his parents to tout his non-binary inclinations as something to leverage towards a positive acceptance decision. Much of the drama of the film involves the conflict between Alex and Greg and whether or not they think this is a morally acceptable decision to make for their four year old. It’s fascinating to ruminate that this consideration ranges all the way from kindergarten to higher education and even the workplace.
The second largest conflict I had with the story is that it demonstrates a lack of understanding about the privilege a very small fraction of Americans enjoy today. Alex and Greg live in what seems like a very, very nice neighborhood. We see them at fancy restaurants, they have highly skilled professional careers, and their brownstone is quite enviable. They benefit from a starting point that I don’t believe the average American can (or will) ever relate to. Their main conflict is essentially characterized by “We don’t want out child to go to public school, but how can we find the best private one for him?” This is not the case for the majority of American families. If you grow up in rural Alabama, you have one option. Where I’m from, North Dakota, it’s the same case. You go where you’re supposed to. Gay, bi, transgender, or genderqueer. That’s pretty much it. No exceptions. This is the dilemma that casts a shadow over the entire film. I imagine that LGBTQ people that live in these areas would feel very dispirited by what, to them, would have been an idyllic childhood.
That being said, I do think we have to start somewhere, and this is an adequate start. Like the very mainstream Love, Simon, it’s not perfect and it doesn’t capture other complications that many (better) LGBTQ+ stories feature: race relations, poverty, or familial discordance. For that, see Moonlight or Beach Rats. However, A Kid Like Jake is much more mainstream. It features A-List actors who uniformly turn out excellent performances. This is probably what saves this film from being completely irredeemable. We have great talent, none of whom are phoning it in and that lends itself a little cred.
My hope is that this kicks open the door for other films and stories about young children exploring their gender identity but not boxed in by a coterie of liberal, affluent adults. Hopefully a major studio and some great talent will recognize this as well.