The 4-year-old character referred to in the title of the new film "A Kid Like Jake " does not actually get much screen time at all. He's around and always being talked about, as his gender-fluidity is becoming more apparent to those around him, but "A Kid Like Jake" is not really about Jake at all — it's about his parents.
Based on a 2013 play by Daniel Pearle, who adapted his work for the screen, and directed by Silas Howard, a transgender filmmaker who has directed episodes of the show "Transparent," ''A Kid Like Jake" is a slice of life drama that resonates beyond its very specific premise.
Claire Danes plays Alex Wheeler, an attorney who gave up her career to be a stay at home mom to Jake. Jim Parsons is his dad, Greg Wheeler, who is a therapist. And Alex and Greg and Jake (Leo James Davis) are presented as a generally happy family, just trying to navigate where to send Jake to kindergarten now that they've been zoned out of the ideal public school.
The construct of keeping Jake in the background is limiting, of course, and may be a choice that provokes some consternation, but the laser focus on the parents allows for a pointed and affecting look at two people who are being made aware that their son has depths they haven't yet acknowledged. And goodness, does it come as a surprise to the Wheelers, and from an external source that puts Alex immediately on the defensive.
That outsider is preschool counselor named Judy (Octavia Spencer), who has become a friend to the Wheelers and is helping them figure out just which Manhattan school to apply for. Because they can't afford a private school, they start looking into scholarship options and Judy, in an effort to be helpful, suggests they talk up Jake's gender nonconforming playfulness which she posits might make him stand out more as a candidate for admission.
Jake, it turns out, has an affinity for donning tutus and dresses and likes to watch and talk about Disney princess tales like "A Little Mermaid" and "Cinderella," but the suggestion that his preferences in the playroom might be an indication of something bigger is not anything that Alex or Greg had considered.
How each parent reacts and adapts to this revelation lends itself to a captivating character study. Here are two educated and evolved people learning things about themselves through this situation and raising big questions in the process. Are they dissuading Jake from wearing a Rapunzel costume for Halloween for his benefit or theirs? Is there truth that Jake's life will be harder if he doesn't conform to gender norms? Or are they just perpetuating the status quo by denying him his true expression of self?
With the stress of kindergarten admissions and a new pregnancy, the Wheelers start to fracture. Alex is in a state of denial, and Greg, used to playing the neutral party in the office, has to step out of his shell and voice an opinion for once.
Both Danes and Parsons excel in these well-written roles, with a compelling supporting cast around them that includes Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, Ann Dowd and Amy Landecker. "A Kid Like Jake" might not be especially cinematic, but it is profound in its simplicity and truthfulness about what real fights sound like and what real lives look like. And don't worry, Jake does get a little moment of his own, just when it is most needed, and it doesn't disappoint.
"A Kid Like Jake," an IFC Films release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 87 minutes. Three stars out of four.