There’s something that feels half-formed about the film adaptation of the play A Kid Like Jake. Perhaps it’s that all the fact that the audience sees only glimpses of Jake, a four year old boy who loves Disney princesses and playing dress up with girls. Perhaps it’s that the most nuanced performance in the whole film is Claire Danes, as Jake’s mother Alex. Perhaps it’s that this film is littered with amazing cameo actors who get written as incredibly one-note. Whatever it may be, Daniel Pearle’s adaptation of his own play feels disconnected. It does not justify the jump from stage to screen.
The story of the play and film center around a couple Alex and Greg (Jim Parsons) who are trying to get their pre-school age son into private schools in New York City. They are struggling with the idea that their son’s gender non-conforming may be more than just a child’s whim. While they wonder whether it will play an advantage in his school admissions, they avoid facing the reality that what makes him “unique” and “creative” in an application may also be part of his lifelong identity.
Most of the film, directed by Silas Howard (Transparent, This is Us), is a series of small scenes that all seem to add up to the fact that Alex is in denial and Greg feels isolated/impotent in his marriage and role as a parent. The best scene of the entire film is when the couple finally let their polite guards down and explode at each other. It’s two people who love each other know exactly what to say to inflict wounds. It’s verbal knife throwing, and would be electrifying on stage.
This fact is why the film fails elsewhere. Jake isn’t seen in the play and when he’s seen in the movie he’s rarely directly interacting with any of the main characters. There’s an occasional scene with Alex playing with him briefly, but mostly it’s these dreamy sequences of him playing. It may be the practical fact that it’s hard to find a 4 year old actor that can grasp any sort of nuance of gender identity beyond the direction to play dress up or princesses. But the lack of interaction feels very off in a film. Greg doesn’t even interact with Jake at all until the very end, and it’s such a weird choice because it automatically makes Greg seem cold and out of touch, which isn’t exactly the correct placement of who he is.
There’s also so many wasted fabulous actors in brief cameos in this film. Ann Dowd is thrown into the flat, predictable role of Alex’s mother who can’t help but constantly criticize her daughter. Aasif Mandvi gets a brief moment as the date of the couple’s friend Amal (a fine Priyanka Chopra) who’s only there to make totally out of touch Caitlin Jenner jokes and say that women like to be told what to do. Then there’s Octavia Spencer as Judy, Jake’s school principal and Alex’s friend. Her role is in the play and so her role feels fuller and of more use in the story, but she plays the same patient, wise note throughout the film and audiences know she’s capable of so much more than this supporting role.
The bottom line is that it’s a fantastic performance for Claire Danes who gets the most meat in the film to chew on, but everyone else gets short shrift. It’s fantastic to see a movie that opens discussion about gender non-conforming children and perhaps that’s the biggest benefit of this middling play turned film adaptation: as a film, it will get to reach a wider audience. Beyond that, having this story in a this medium probably doesn’t accomplish all that much.