A Kid Like Jake is a nice picture - a very fucking nice picture indeed. This is a big part of the problem with it. Nice pictures of this particular sort are also very smug, self-satisfied pictures, in the absence of virtually anything to be smug or self-satisfied about: their niceness is wielded as a sign of moral virtue that the film doesn't earn. We are meant to walk away from A Kid Like Jake having learned a lot about the world and ourselves, but the film remains too shallow for there to be any risk of that.

The film has been adapted by Daniel Pearle from his own 2013 play, and something has been lost in translation. I'm frankly not sure that this would work very well in any medium, but at least live theater has a kind of forced performative quality that makes overt moral crises feel more humane and interesting than they do in movies, where this kind of "state the movie's theme and argue about it" writing just feels tediously over-literal. The story goes like this: the Wheelers, currently retired lawyer Alex (Claire Danes) and therapist Greg (Jim Parsons) moved to their current very nice corner of Manhattan specifically for the schools, but the districts have just been redrawn, and now they must scurry to apply to all the great magnet schools to ensure that their 4-year-old child Jake (Leo James Davis) gets the best possible education. If you've made it this far into the review, and you remain capable of feeling genuine pity for Alex and Greg Wheeler, I top my hat to you for being a better human than I am. Anyway, the stress of application season is bad enough, but as Jake's principal Judy Lawson (Octavia Spencer) keeps pointing out, Jake is currently demonstrating non-normative gender behavior. This represents a crisis point for the Wheelers, but also an opportunity, since making a point of calling attention to this fact in their applications might help the various application committees get a better sense of Jake's special character.

Prior to seeing the film, my biggest fear was that A Kid Like Jake was going to indulge in shitty sub-Coenesque satire about awful bourgeois New Yorkers cynically weaponising their child's identity as a way of streamlining their way into a good school, executed with a clumsy lack of tact. After seeing the film, I deeply wish this had been the film they made. This is a powerfully rarefied message movie, the kind where talk around and over and finally directly through the Issue At Hand is allowed to take precedence over incidentals like drama and character. This is especially grating in this case, because the Issue At Hand is so awkwardly expressed. Literally; among its other achievements, A Kid Like Jake serves as a compendium of all the euphemistic ways grown-ups talk about gender identity in children without ever being clear about. So the message kind of turns out to be something like "let your kid be your kid, which means your kid might be trans, but also might not, and they also might turn out to have incredibly bad social skills, and you need to be concerned about that, but don't make them feel guilty about it, because there's already a chance that they're trans, but they also might not be." It doesn't help matters that we never really get to know Jake at all - in the original play, the titular kid was kept entirely offstage, which I imagine worked perfectly fine in the heightened reality of live theater, but in the movie we see Jake sometimes, and what we see gives us no sense at all of what kind of human the Wheelers' child is, or is going to be.

Instead, the film is all about the Wheelers themselves, and they're just not interesting. Danes and Parsons aren't entirely responsible for that, though I find both of their performances err substantially on hacky, one-note approaches to how their characters interact with the world. This is especially true of Parson's flat, glazed-over approach the scenes with his apparently only patient, Sandra (Amy Landecker), with whom he has pointedly go-nowhere conversations that don't advance the plot. The point being, I don't admire either lead actor, but the roles were corrupt before they got there. The film's attempt to sketch out Alex and Greg function almost entirely negatively: we see them around other adults, and we understand that they are not that. This only really works in sketching out how Alex functions as not-her-mother (Ann Dowd), and that's probably mostly because we have a pre-existing script for how mothers fuck up their daughters. Beyond that, all that really happens is that the supporting characters end up feeling much more interesting and fleshed-out than the leads: Dowd and Spencer comes as no surprise, but I truly mean everyone: the couple's friend Amal (Priyanka Chopra) has more personality, and so does the sexist guy she only dates for one scene (Aasif Mandvi), and for all that Sandra is a caricature of an emotionally inaccessible cynic, I'd much rather spend a film with her, she's been drawn so brightly. Alex and Greg are just banal people with uninteresting problems and personalities defined entirely in terms of what's most convenient for the script at any moment.

To go with the uninteresting protagonists, the film has an uninteresting, and frankly defective aesthetic; director Silas Howard is making a lot of choices, and almost none of them work. The exception is the way he shoots Jake and other children at play: the shifting focus and fragmentary close-ups on arms and hands create a fuzziness that works well with the themes, reminding us visually that adults do not, in fact, understand children. But that's one trick, and it only shows up a few times. Besides that, the film is lousy with overly loose handheld compositions, and frankly bizarre focal choices; when a shot has an interesting composition, as for example a terrifyingly wide-open shot of Sandra that gives her too much headroom, it tends to feel like it happened by accident, and it generally serves no apparent purpose. The film is also horribly lit and color corrected, washed in a gaudy golden-yellow glow that strips the reality of everything and directly contrasts with the raw intimacy (however trite and ineffective) of the handheld sequences.

Buried in here is the nugget of an interesting conundrum: how does a well-meaning upper-class liberal parent deal with having a child who puts their ideals to the test? What is the right way to treat a child who behaves outside of social convention? I can imagine the film triggering interesting conversations, at least. But none of them have to do with being a well-told, interesting story centered on strong characters, because none of that applies. This is dull and lifeless filmmaking about dull and lifeless people, and whatever value can be extracted from A Kid Like Jake is decidedly not worth the effort it takes to watch it.

At least it's short.