Being a kid is never easy, especially when you’re “a kid like Jake.” Jake (Leo James Davis) is…. different. He’s… unique. But Jake is different and unique, often in the best ways. He’s developmentally advanced, in the 96th percentile of his age group, loves dressing in frilly pink skirts, and wants to be a Disney princess for Halloween. His favorite movie is The Little Mermaid.
And while his interests are only noticeable in a whisper, as Jake applies to other grammar schools his indulgences become more defining. And while both parents, Greg (Jim Parsons) and Alex (Claire Danes), have always been open to their son’s pastimes, when Jake’s identity becomes an open debate, the parents shroud away from those tough questions.
This becomes especially difficult as they figure out a way to “sell” their son to a new private school. Judy (Octavia Spencer), Jake’s lesbian teacher, suggests that they play the diversity card. However, this creates an inescapable issue. Even if they don’t openly say that Jake may be non-binary, by initiating a discussion about what makes him different, they may be prematurely labeling him. Partly these fears protect Jake, but partly they protect the parents. Because as each event passes: birthday parties, play times, orientations, more-and-more questions mount as to what to do with Jake. And neither Greg nor Alex are able to agree: “is this a passing faze or is this who he is?”
Director Silas Howard is deeply interested in these questions. What does embracing diversity mean? When does a child know their gender? And how much support should be given to indulge non-gender conforming interests? While the Wheelers, Greg and Alex, are probably highly liberal (they do live in an upper middle class Brooklyn neighborhood), those beliefs are put into a crucible. Indeed, one could image Alex inciting a liberal Twitter rant against Trump and his anti-LGBTQ policies. However, our politics outside are often different from our actions inside. And the Wheelers are no different.
Nevertheless, while the central theme (non-binary genders) is important, the film does appear to be stretched too thin. Greg, a therapist, has multiple sessions with a patient (Amy Landecker) who’s close to divorcing her husband. These sessions say much of Greg’s own marriage. But the therapist next door, who uses primal scream therapy in an empty office as a treatment, is a punchline that gets tapped dry and resolves to nothing. Also, the film is rife with establishing shots of New York with no discernible purpose. These sequences are moments to step away from the drama surrounding Jake, but they are often a step too far into nowhere.
The one subplot that does feel weighty is the mother/daughter relationship between Alex and Catherine (Ann Dowd). Dowd is on a hot streak at the moment, and this small role, often adding context to Alex’s stress, reinvigorates the film when the main plot appears too finely parsed. It’s a pity that we don’t see more of Catherine because a film like this needs needling characters. It needs no-filter individuals asking tougher questions, inviting confrontation.
This issue is of even greater consequence considering the film falls on Parsons and Danes. Both are often up to the challenge, as the tension between their characters slowly builds. The reliance on the two actors is out of necessity, as Pearl Buck’s play: A Kid Like Jake, never features the child on stage. Here, we can see Jake, but he’s never really there. He’s always on the periphery, with few lines and just out of reach. It’s tantalizing, as we want to hear from Jake. But the issue is never with Jake himself, Jake appears to be comfortable with who he is. It’s the parents who aren’t. And while the emphasis on their feelings sometimes brings the film to a standstill, it’s rarely without warrant when answering these tough questions.
In fact, these questions ultimately crack the two parents as their opposing personalities come to bear. Greg, referred to as Switzerland by his patient, rarely takes sides. Of the two, he appears the most open to accepting his son’s interests. And because of that, because of his calm and sometimes anti-masculine demeanor, he’s blamed by Alex for their son’s effeminate behavior. Alex, a stay at home mom, is also burdened by mounting pressure to finish Jake’s application and decide his future.
This burden ultimately culminates in a shouting match between the two parents. Separated at two ends of their living room, they inhabit the worst of what they are the worst of what they could be if they aren’t prepared to deal with how the world will accept their son. In short, it’s a display of fear more than anger. It’s a demonstration of a parent’s most innate instinct: to protect their child, while also intimating that love and understanding is the ultimate protection.