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Director Silas Howard Discusses New Film, 'A Kid Like Jake'

A Kid Like Jake

Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler, and Leo James Davis as Jake Wheeler in Silas Howard’s A KID LIKE JAKE. Photo by JON PACK. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Director Silas Howard’s new film, A Kid Like Jake, focuses on Brooklyn couple Alex and Greg Wheeler (Claire Danes and Jim Parsons) as they try to figure out if their four-year-old son’s penchant for dressing up in princess gowns is a sign that he’s transgender. Timely and moving, the film is based on the play by Daniel Pearle, who also wrote the screenplay.

Alex and Greg’s marriage starts to unravel when they begin looking for an elementary school for Jake (charming Leo James Davis), a task akin to competing in the Olympics in New York City. Jake’s preschool director and the couple’s friend, Judy (Octavia Spencer), suggests that his gender-expansive games may be more than a phase. And that playing the transgender card could actually help them secure him a spot in one of the city’s elite, diversity-conscious schools. Alex worries that labeling their son will harm him. Greg, a therapist, gradually becomes more concerned about Jake’s increasingly erratic behavior and wants him to get professional help.

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Silas Howard, director of A KID LIKE JAKE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Academy Art U News recently spoke to the multi-talented Howard about A Kid Like Jake and his career. As a transgender artist, he’s been a voice for his community for many years. In the ‘90s, he played guitar in Tribe 8, a queer punk rock band from San Francisco. He fell in love with visual storytelling after co-writing and starring in his first full-length feature, By Hook or By Crook, in 2001. His other work includes directing several episodes of the Emmy-award winning Amazon series Transparent. A Kid Like Jake is his most mainstream project to date.

“I didn’t really see this film being about Jake being trans or straight or gay,” said Howard. “It’s about family and relationships and the pressures of a society that still polices a lot of things. Even though I’m trans and grew up gender non-conforming in a small town where I didn’t fit in, I feel like there are so many ways that kids can be different or labeled. And that puts so much weight and responsibility on the parents. There’s this primal urge to do the right thing. But it’s also common when you have these kinds of pressures to take out your frustration on the person closest to you.”

Parsons, who produced the film, and Danes were already attached to the project when Howard signed on as director. He and Parsons recruited the rest of the strong cast, which includes funny Ann Dowd as Alex’s critical mother and Amy Landecker as one of Greg’s patients (Howard worked with both of them in Transparent). He was driving when he got the news that Spencer was joining the cast.

“I had to pull over and do a happy dance,” he said. “Octavia had worked with Jim on Hidden Figures, so it was an easy ask. But it was the script that got her really interested. She wants to do movies with subjects that have social relevance. Everybody in the movie was so committed—they all came to Sundance for a day of press. It’s amazing to have that level of cast who also care so much about the film.”

Howard had no professional training when he made By Hook or By Crook with band mate Harry Dodge. Wanting to learn the craft of filmmaking, he enrolled in U.C.L.A.’s film school and graduated with an M.F.A. in 2008.

“I loved that first movie, and we made that story out of this urgent desire,” Howard remarked. “It was so unique and sort of do-it-yourself and micro-budget. But it’s not like I could move to L.A. and get hired on another project as a result of it. So I went to U.C.L.A. to learn how to direct actors and to make short films, which I’d never done. I made some bad shorts, and then I figured out how to make one that I liked. I also got a community in the film world I still work with, so that was a big deal.”

A Kid Like Jake

Claire Danes as Alex Wheeler and Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler in Silas Howard’s A KID LIKE JAKE. Photo by JON PACK. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

A Kid Like Jake

Octavia Spencer as Judy in Silas Howard’s A KID LIKE JAKE. Photo by JON PACK. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Although he’s proud to be a voice for the LGBTQ community, Howard’s main goal is to tell honest stories about people that viewers will connect to, even if they come from very different backgrounds and have different beliefs.  

“My stories have been about people who happen to be gay or queer or trans,” explained Howard. “But rather than telling a story about that, I’m putting people from those backgrounds in stories that are really about other things, like friendship or a loss. A Kid Like Jake is much more about a straight couple, which isn’t my world. But I connect to them so much. My goal is to find those universal moments within any context. I just love telling storytelling, so any time I can get my hands on a good story, I go for it.”

A Kid Like Jake is now playing in San Francisco.