There are some fine performances here, but the comedy-drama needed a much sharper edge to dissect the weighty material. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
It’s tough to hate on “A Kid Like Jake” because its intentions are so admirable. Director Silas Howard’s comedy-drama acknowledges that gender identity is a biological imperative, even in a 4-year-old boy. It’s a daring premise, which makes Howard’s fluffy approach to the material all the more frustrating.
That doesn’t stop Howard (who has found a niche in episodic television) from unpacking a trunkload of challenging ideas. There is the obvious nature vs. nurture debate, but there are also fascinating practical concerns, such as playing the “diversity card” to secure Jake’s entry into a prestigious private school.
Mostly, Howard focuses on the inability of Jake’s parents to agree upon a philosophical approach to raising their unconventional child. Greg (Jim Parsons), a doting father and professional therapist, is open to the idea of letting little Jake (Leo James Davis) dress up like Cinderella for Halloween. His wife, Alex (Claire Danes), isn’t so sure. She indulges Jake’s curiosities, reading him bedtime stories about princesses while secretly hoping it’s a passing phase — a dalliance with fanciful play before discovering the rough-and-tumble joys of soccer and horseplay.
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It’s not surprising that a film helmed by a television director and populated by television royalty like Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”) and Danes (“My So-Called Life”) often feels like a glorified sitcom. The general tone remains playful and light, dulling any of the potential drama. There are even comic-relief characters, such as Greg’s wacky new neighbor who specializes in scream therapy. When one of Greg’s patients inquires, “Who’s the banshee?” you expect a laugh track to punctuate the corny joke.
Occasionally, a substantive movie crawls to the surface. The film’s thunderous final confrontation between Alex and Greg, for instance, is the type of argument that changes marriages forever. Voices are raised and truths are spoken that should have remained hidden. Yet, these dramatic moments feel unavoidably contrived in a story that wants everyone going home happy. There’s also the little matter of Jake being in his own film for only 5 minutes! This leads me to speculate wildly that Jake is, in fact, the shiny MacGuffin living in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase from “Pulp Fiction.”
There are some fine performances here, particularly from a revelatory Danes and a compassionate school administrator played by Octavia Spencer, but “A Kid Like Jake” needed a much sharper edge to dissect such weighty issues.
★★½ “A Kid Like Jake,” with Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Leo James Davis, Octavia Spencer. Directed by Silas Howard, from a screenplay by Daniel Pearle, based on Pearle’s stage play. 92 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens June 29 at the Varsity.