Director Silas Howard sought to “not let the audience have their catharsis,” and adds a new layer to queer onscreen representation.
Chances are, if you’ve been on the internet enough in 2018, you’ll have seen the hashtag #20GayTeen. Initially started by ethereal pop singer and actor Hayley Kiyoko in preparation of her debut major label studio album, such a catchy designation has been applicable to all facets of LGBTQ communities. This unsurprisingly includes many an onscreen endeavor.
Now that we’ve reached the midpoint of 2018, we’ve seen Love, Simon become a teen movie sensation. Disobedience got tongues wagging, for better or worse. We await the wide releases of other coming-of-age festival favorites like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Desiree Akhavan’s follow-up to her searing debut feature Appropriate Behavior.
One particular queer film that should probably be on our radars comes from trans filmmaker and writer Silas Howard, best known for his influential directorial debut — the buddy film that he also co-wrote and co-starred in called By Hook or By Crook. His work on the Amazon series Transparent and Ryan Murphy’s Pose is also notable. But Howard’s latest feature film A Kid Like Jake – which premiered at Sundance earlier in 2018 and received a wider domestic release on June 1 – is truly unlike anything he’s done before.
Starring the most well-known cast that Howard has worked with on a film to date – including Claire Danes, Octavia Spencer, and Jim Parsons – A Kid Like Jake tells the story of the eponymous young boy (played by newcomer Leo James Davis) who loves gender-expansive play. The film is also about Jake’s mother and father (Danes and Parsons) as they navigate the responsibilities of parenthood when raising a child who doesn’t conform to gender norms. When they seek to enroll him in a prestigious private school, his identity becomes a hot-button issue.
Watch the trailer below:
Admittedly, the trailer for A Kid Like Jake portrays a suspiciously thin premise that uses Jake’s love of Disney princesses and his preference for wearing dresses as a means for him to “stand out” in the private school rat race. However, according to Howard himself as well as actors Danes and Spencer, the film goes deeper than these superficial presentations.
Speaking to Screen Crush, Howard unpacks the deliberate narrative of uncertainty in A Kid Like Jake, stating that the film purposely doesn’t send a didactic message about its namesake or his parents. The movie’s four-year-old protagonist openly embraces toys and cultural products that supposedly run counter to what is expected of him to like. Yet while Jake’s parents let him assert autonomy in his choices for the most part, they are also clearly confused as to how or whether they should let such choices define their child at such an early age.
According to Howard:
“[A]t first, it was counterintuitive to me to not show the gender expansive kid. Because, you know, my whole work is around visibility. But actually because it’s around a four-year-old kid – who may or may not be trans, may or not be gay, he might be an effeminate man, maybe he’s straight – I wanted to live in the ambiguity and show how quickly we don’t let that live as a society, and how those pressures sort of play out. It felt like one of the more political statements for me as a director to flip that and not let the audience have their catharsis or decision-making based on how girly or boyish [Jake is], or try to decide the gender by looking at our kid.”
Moreover, in portraying a relatively progressive couple who still harbor regressive perceptions about gender identity, A Kid Like Jake further comments on how its subject matter is relatable across the board. No one is exempt from internalized bias — a result which has been replicated in real-life experiments examining if adults can really avoid stereotyping children. A Kid Like Jake and its world of competitive modern-day parenting is mirrored by the very real debate over gender-neutral child-rearing, and how enforcing preconceived societal norms onto young children could affect their personal development as they grow older.
As Spencer — who plays a more accepting preschool guidance counselor in the film — says in an interview with IndieWire about the film, “It’s the parents who then start projecting their ideas of who he should be.” In that same interview, Danes remarks that her own character’s rigidness does come from a place of humanity, even if she can be difficult to empathize with because of it.
“A lot of [the parents’ reaction is] fear and…if it’s your little person that’s going to go into the world and maybe be bullied or attacked and you feel like it’s your job to make that not happen, then you do the wrong thing. I just wanted compassion. […] I think parenting or just trying to support people, or kids, or knowing what the right thing is, is not an easy thing to do.”
While affirming one’s identity is ultimately very important and still lacking in onscreen LGBTQ representations, the power of perspectives matters when identity doesn’t seem to be — or even has to be — definitive. A Kid Like Jake is an unprecedented story in the tiny media landscape that even features LGBTQ subjects, to begin with — particularly when representing trans stories and characters. The movie certainly still feels necessary because of its intentional vagueness, which adds more variance to trans voices onscreen as a whole. The opportunity for the trans director to work on such a high-profile project is also extremely significant.
To find positive or affirming portrayals of both binary trans characters as well as non-binary, fluid and even questioning identities is a tall order. But A Kid Like Jake seeks to understand what it means to support fluid identities when one doesn’t always have the answers as a parent in a heteronormative, cisnormative culture. And that is definitely valuable. The Washington Post lists A Kid Like Jake as one of the most potentially buzzworthy movies out this summer, and I really hope that’s true.