There’s no doubting the sincerity behind Silas Howard’s adaptation of Daniel Pearle’s 2013 play, scripted by the playwright himself, and if good will were all that mattered, “A Kid Like Jake” would be a smashing success. Unfortunately, it isn’t, and though the film boasts plenty of talent in front of the camera, it comes across more shrilly didactic than effectively dramatic.
The titular character, a four-year old tyke more taken with “Little Mermaid” dolls than “G.I. Joe” action figures and played by Leo James Davis, is really peripheral here; we see the kid occasionally dancing around in self-made paper skirts and interacting with fellow students in a pre-kindergarten class run by ever-supportive child-development specialist Judy (Olivia Spencer), but the focus is on Jake’s parents, Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons) Wheeler. She’s a lawyer who gave up practicing to be a full-time mother, and he’s a NYC therapist. They don’t have the financial resources to pay for Jake’s tuition at one of the best schools, and so Judy suggests that in preparing their applications for aid, they mention Jake’s gender-crossing inclinations as a means of grabbing the attention of enrollment committees.
Greg reacts to the idea in his typically quiet, restrained fashion, but Alex is taken aback, and strongly resists any suggestion that Jake is different, perhaps transgender. The perspective of Alex’s best friend Amal (Priyanka Chopra) and her husband Darren (Aasif Mandvi), whose son Sanjay (Rhys Bhatia) is Jake’s closest pal, suggests that others are beginning to note that possibility—and some of the kids in Jake’s class are beginning to taunt Jake about it.
The disagreement between Greg and Alex on the subject escalates into mutual recrimination—and some antagonism toward Judy on Alex’s part—before the adults come to their senses and realize that, in the end, it’s the well-being of the child that matters above all.
It’s impossible to argue with that conclusion, or with the basic issue the film raises about allowing a kid to develop naturally, without adults imposing their preconceptions of what is desirable. But the approach taken by Pearle and Howard is reductive, presenting the choices parents face in ambiguous situations but in the end merely taking a stance that effectively says “don’t worry, be happy.”
It is, perhaps, the essential simplicity of the central plot, despite the importance of the underlying theme, that led Pearle to add subsidiary characters to liven things up occasionally. In addition to Amal and Darren, who have a strong scene with the Wheelers out dining, there are Catherine, Alex’s mother, whom Ann Dowd plays with bulldozer force, and Amy Landecker as Sandra, one of Greg’s patients. To be sure, Landecker overdoes things, acting as though she were playing to the last row in the balcony of a Broadway house, but it must be said that she brings a spark of life to her scenes.
That’s especially helpful because Parsons is such a passive performer. He certainly convinces you that Greg is a bland milquetoast who has trouble rousing himself even when insulted, but one wonders whether it’s acting or type-casting. Danes goes in the opposite direction, acting up an absolute storm, while the smiling Spencer is once again tasked to play a veritable earth mother, wise and almost impossible to ruffle. On the technical side the only element of note is Steven Capitano Calitri’s cinematography, and not in a positive way: his hectic, herky-jerky camerawork is exhausting, as is his penchant for oppressive close-ups.
One hesitates to be overly hard on a film like “A Kid Like Jake,” since its heart is obviously in the right place. But good intentions are not enough to make for a good film.