The Sundance Film Festival is an eavesdropper’s dream for two main subjects: industry gossip and the private-school admissions scene in New York and Los Angeles. Pretty much everything I know about the difficulties of getting a privileged child into the kindergarten that will ensure a successful future and, eventually, great test scores, I learn in line for movies in Park City. It’s about the least moving plight to overhear, especially as the lights lower for the latest documentary about disappearing coral reefs or the Syrian refugee crisis. So when I say A Kid Like Jake made the experience of two Williamsburg parents trying to place their 5-year-old into kindergarten not only deeply sympathetic, but also expansively humane and funny, you must appreciate what a miracle this is.
Of course, as the title suggests, the kid in question is not exactly your average 5-year-old — Jake loves dresses and Disney princesses and his favorite game is Cinderella, all of which he’s been able to enjoy judgement-free at home with mom Alex (Claire Danes) and dad Greg (Jim Parsons). And yet, he also so emphatically is average, a little person just discovering his likes and dislikes, still mostly unaware how they will affect how he fits into society as he grows older. The drama of A Kid Like Jake, which is small and contained and also somehow about everything, is the question of how to protect someone you’re responsible for, or even if there’s anything to protect them from; what to cultivate and what to let run wild, and all the life-altering choices that happen around a child when they’re barely even old enough to remember them.
If this sounds like drab issues-movie territory, director Silas Howard, a trans filmmaker who’s spent the last few years cutting his teeth on TV family fare like This Is Us and The Fosters, disarms you right away with how breezy and chatty and not at all self-serious this corner of Brooklyn is. The film is based on a play by Daniel Pearle, and most of the film is built out of leisurely conversations that often start off as one thing and become something else. Alex talks about and around Jake’s gender identity with her school-counselor friend Judy (Octavia Spencer); their conversations vacillate between candid and intimate and professional from one minute to the next. Alex, a retired lawyer, is a walking ball of neuroses whose anxieties rattle out of her mouth a mile a minute, and Greg, a therapist, is watchful and diplomatic as the couple run around from interview to interview. The couple crack jokes in the margins of their stress like anyone else would — rarely does a scene focus on how their relationship or Jake’s future is in existential crisis. This is not a film about falling apart, but all the conversations and compromises that hold things together.
Danes we’ve seen in a similar mode before, though Alex is a richer character than some of her more crisis-oriented roles, and she’s likably filter-free here. Parsons, however — I’ll admit I didn’t know he had it in him. Greg is certainly the less demonstrative of the two, but in a devastating fight near the end of the film, Parsons reveals his unspoken insecurities with an honesty and fortitude that frankly stunned me. The two have been walking on eggshells so much throughout the film, never wanting to declare one thing or another about their son, while realizing that the world won’t let him stay in a liminal space for long. When they finally start addressing the issue to its face, so much is dredged up — some of it ugly, some of it two progressive Williamsburg parents would like to think that they were above. Howard doesn’t condemn them for that, but rather gives them space to talk it out and try to do their best.
It’s remarkable how engaging and light on its feet the director and cast are able to keep this subject matter, how much permission he gives them to fuck up and try again. Despite all Alex and Greg’s hand-wringing, Howard never feels stressed about Jake’s future — he’s obviously got a couple thoughtful parents looking after him; he’ll be better off than most kids who refuse to fit the mold. But Howard also understands that worrying is Alex and Greg’s job, and this smart and graceful film makes us feel just how important that work is.