'A Kid Like Jake' movie review: Empathy takes center stage as Jim Parsons and Claire Danes shine
In a signature-Howard fashion, A Kid Like Jake eases the audience into the more layered and complex situation at hand.
In a typical Silas Howard world, one would find a liberal undercurrent; focus on the urban, upper-middle-class archetypes with adult relationships and conversations kickstarting the course of events. Nothing that his Brooklyn-set parental drama, 'A Kid Like Jake' doesn't emphasize.
With the pivotal theme being a 4-year-old child, Jake (Leo James Davis), and his enthusiasm with tutus, princesses, and gender-fluid playfulness, Howard somehow takes the spotlight off the titular character for the better half of the film. Instead, the director - who has shows like 'Transparent' to his credit - uses Jake as a means to his end, the character study of the happily married Greg and Alex Wheeler (Jim Parsons and Claire Danes).
The Wheelers are a pretty regular bunch - Greg a small-scale therapist and his wife, a former-attorney-turned-full-time-mom. The first hint of crisis begins with Alex herself, who as it turns out, has given up her job to take up full-time mom duties - a decision that has clearly not gone down well with her very opinionated mother (Ann Dowd).
Alex and her mother's patchy relationship eventually emerges as the underlying theme while treating the second generation of this chain - the Wheeler's gender-nonconforming son Jake. Unlike Danes' character, however, Parsons-played Greg has a relatively easier time handling their son's situation. In fact, quite early on, it's been established that Greg is used to playing a neutral role - whether it's in his office or on personal fronts.
He likes to keep it harmonious, an ideal husband, a provider and a loving father - for that matter, both the Wheelers' lives revolve around a visibly-absent Jake throughout the plot. In a signature-Howard fashion, however, 'A Kid Like Jake' eases the audience into the more layered and complex situation at hand.
For a very specific reason - prospects of getting their gifted son into a top-notch public school - the couple shifts their neighborhood. Their plan obviously doesn't work out after the rezoning and they are met with a brand new challenge, skimming through options of private kindergartens - an idea they couldn't afford in the first place.
At this point, their friendly local preschool director, Judy (Octavia Spencer) makes a suggestion that not only changes the entire plan of action but also brings into attention Jake's gender-expansive play. That it's not just a phase and might be something worth highlighting while applying to the schools comes as a reality check for this pair of concerned parents.
Trained by habits (and also compelled by the fact that he is now the sole breadwinner) Greg lets Alex take charge of Jake's admissions. And with one complicated situation layering another, Danes' character shows the first signs of fracture. Howard's depiction of the female lead is not monstrous. If anything, it's a slice-of-life presentation, trying to capture the essence of Daniel Pearle's adaptation (of his 2013 play 'A Kid Like Jake')
While the nuanced drama, seen through the eyes of the struggling parents - coming to terms with their 4-yr-old's rather interesting preferences - works well for the stage crowd, there's a certain absence of narrative and even intrigue that minimizes the impact of the cinematic iteration.
Without the shades, the continuous build-up, and Jake's prolonged absence, Howard's edition turns out to be mostly talkative. If you are looking for solutions, this is not the ideal plot. The Parsons-starrer takes pride in being a conversation starter. Burdened by the societal stereotypes, where it's rather simpler to categorize and group than let experimentation and curiosity take its own course, the film's lead (especially Danes' Alex) struggles and even remains in a state of denial.
Will it be easier for Jake if he takes more interest in boyish preferences or is it about conforming to the standards that brands anomalies in the society? Throughout the latter half of the parental drama, 'A Kid Like Jake' raises these very relevant questions, that many a modern couple would identify with, supported by an equally brilliant cast including Spencer and Priyanka Chopra.
In the process of putting the social mores through the wringer, however, Howard's main stars - Parsons and Danes - each get their own opportunity to shine. The latter with her battles and the former with an interesting transformation. Having remained more or less passive in his relationship, Parsons' father figure, surprisingly and pleasantly, assumes a voice.
He connects with Jake and even finds it natural to accept and nurture his son's leanings. Quite a contradiction from his loud and almost obnoxious personality as the geek, Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, Parsons unleashes previously-unseen skills.
As a heterosexual man, Gregg is quite capable of feelings and emotions - even at the cost of being branded effeminate at a crisis point by Alex.
'A Kid Like Jake' woos the audience with its honest portrayals - characters who are unabashedly genuine and without a hint of hesitance voices their darkest, deepest thoughts. And then retains attention by tearing each of them apart, putting a happy marriage under the scanner.
In the process, allowing the finer shades, of the lives depicted in the film, shine. It's not cinematically brilliant but has a heart-rendering and simple truthfulness about it, just like Jake.