A Kid Like Jake

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Leo James Davis in A Kid Like Jake
"Young Davis is a real find, bringing such freshness and naturalism to the role of Jake that it's impossible to lose sight of what's at stake." | Photo: Jon Pack

It's always interesting to observe the way that subjects evolve in cinema when they are newly emergent or when they have been unexplored for a long time due to social taboos. The past decade has seen an increasing number of films about transgender people but they still, for the most part, focus on the transition process, usually in young adults. This leaves a wealth of stories untold.

A Kid Like Jake, based on screenwriter Daniel Pearle's previously successful play (theatre is quite a way ahead in this area), shifts the focus to family and to the way that trans and gender nonconforming people fit into, and influence, wider society. It also deals with the hot button issue of gender questioning children in a way that, refreshingly, sets aside academic debate and puts children's well-being first - without shying away from the challenges involved in getting that right.

Jake (Leo James Davis) is four years old and engages with life as a whirl of action and emotion. His stay-at-home mother Alex (Claire Danes) and psychiatrist father Greg (Jim Parsons) have done their best to give him every opportunity and are keen to get him into a good school. This becomes more complicated when catchment areas are redrawn, so Jake's preschool teacher Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests trying to get him a scholarship. The difficulty is that there's a lot of competition for these and being bright is not, in itself, enough. Why not strengthen the application by talking about his gender expansive play? It's a practical suggestion but it's also something the couple have never thought about before, and their gradual recognition that Jake's relationship with gender is unusual plunges them into turmoil.

Is Jake really a girl? Is he non-binary? When he's four, does it really matter? The big questions about identity are largely set aside as Alex and Greg concentrate on what they can do to help their child right now. Ironically, they seem mostly to have been getting it right by not thinking about it - they haven't tried to enforce rigid gender standards so Jake has a mixture of toys and gets to enjoy the Disney princess paraphernalia he adores.

But once the subject has been raised, both parents become anxious about it, largely out of concern at what the world might have in store for their child as he gets older. Telling him that he can't be a princess for Halloween leads to heart-rending tantrums. Alex fights her own instinct to do whatever will make him happiest right away as she tries to coax him into more masculine behaviour. Greg wants him to see a psychiatrist who specialises in gender issues, but Alex is appalled by what she sees as pathologisation. As they increasingly turn on one another, she blames Greg's inability to be a sufficiently manly role model for Jake's difference.

The positioning of trans issues within a wider climate of gender anxiety is one of this film's real strengths. As Greg rails against the idea that he needs to play sports to defend his own gender identity, Alex's mother criticises her for letting down feminism by abandoning a career as a lawyer for the sake of full-time motherhood; and Alex wrestles with the fear that difficulty in conceiving another child undermines her femininity. In a low moment, she lashes out at Judy for being a lesbian, suggesting that what she sees in Jake is all about politics. Meanwhile, Judy's mixed-race relationship - one of two featured in the film - serves as a reminder of other one-time taboos now rendered less and less relevant by history.

Young Davis is a real find, bringing such freshness and naturalism to the role of Jake that it's impossible to lose sight of what's at stake or why emotions are running high, even though he gets relatively little screen time. Danes does a good job with a role that requires her to win over the audience despite being quite unpleasant at times. Her chemistry with Parsons makes us root for the couple even as they fight - there always seems to be something between them that's worth fighting for. Director Silas Howard knows when to stand back and let these three capable performers do their thing, inviting viewers to stumble through the story along with its protagonists and never taking a superior perspective.

Affecting and immersive, A Kid Like Jake tells its tale in a way that anyone who's raised a child will be able to relate to, desensationalising its central subject and presenting it as part of a much larger conversation about gender roles and how individuals find their way through life in the absence of longstanding traditional rules. It's a sensitive and humane take on what it means to navigate such issues in the moment, and it's one of the most satisfying family dramas of the year so far.

Reviewed on: 27 May 2018
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Parents struggle to do the right thing after realising that their child is gender nonconforming.

Director: Silas Howard

Writer: Daniel Pearle, Daniel Pearle, Daniel Pearle

Starring: Claire Danes, Priyanka Chopra, Octavia Spencer, Jim Parsons, Ann Dowd, Amy Landecker, Julia Chan, Cindy Cheung, Aaron Serotsky, Kelly Deadmon, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Leo James Davis, Ian Unterman, Kelly McAndrew, Meghan Strange

Year: 2018

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Sundance 2018

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