“A KID LIKE JAKE”
Childhood Gender Nonconformity
Silas Howard’s “A Kid Like Jake” looks at early childhood gender nonconformity. Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) are a Brooklyn couple with a young son, Jake (Leo James Davis), who is interested in things considered typically feminine.
I always find it interesting to see the ways that things change in the world of movies regarding major events in our society. We can look back at “Philadelphia” perhaps at what is considered the first major Hollywood production about AIDS and at other early films that include gay marriage. Some of what were once thought to be taboo topics are now finding their way to the screen as we have seen during the last ten years regarding transgender issues.
“A Kid Like Jake” is based on screenwriter Daniel Pearle’s successful play that 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 gender questioning children in a way that, refreshingly that puts children’s well being first and puts the academic debate to the side.
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 and psychiatrist father Greg have done their best to give him every opportunity and are keen to get him into a good school. This becomes more complicated when district lines are redrawn, so Jake’s preschool teacher Judy (Octavia Spencer) suggests trying to get him a scholarship. There is a lot of competition for these and being bright is not enough. The couple has never thought about Jake’s gender before, and their gradual recognition that Jake’s relationship with gender is unusual takes them to new places..
What is Jake’s gender and at 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 that he so loves.
Once the subject is raised, both parents become anxious about it, largely out of concern at what the world might have in store for Jake as he gets older. Telling him that he can’t be a princess for Halloween leads to tantrums. Alex fights her own instinct to do whatever will make Jake happiest right away as she tries to urge him into more masculine behavior. Greg wants him to see a psychiatrist who specializes in gender issues, but Alex is appalled by this. As they increasingly turn on one another, she blames Greg’s inability to be a sufficiently manly role model for Jake’s difference.
The film’s strength is in the positioning of trans issues within a wider climate of gender anxiety. As Greg rails against the idea that he needs to play sports to defend his own gender identity, Alex’s mother criticizes her for letting down feminism by abandoning her career as a lawyer for the sake of full-time child rearing; 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 is a reminder of other one-time taboos that are now seen as less relevant by history.
Young Davis is quite the actor and he brings freshness and naturalism to the role of Jake. Danes is quite good as Alex. She has the rough job of winning over the audience while 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 does an excellent job of standing back and letting his actors do their thing. I love that the story is told in a way that anyone who’s raised a child will be able to relate to. The central subject is presented 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. This is a sensitive and humane take on what it means to deal with issues like this these days.