The notions of a mother estranged from her own offspring and a millennial teen embittered with the rage, hard-luck and confinement of paralysis are, on their own, distinct and interesting ideas worth investigating. And the indie “Kelly & Cal” takes both of these ideas and merges them together into what should be a compelling exploration of two separate walks of life struggling with their own disenchantments. But frustratingly, the movie can’t seem to make much of either premise, and in fact, each suggestion is mostly just a façade to examine human nature elements that are far more banal.
“Kelly & Cal” takes these potential threads and drops them safely within the “unlikely friendship” genre you’ve seen before. You may have even witnessed this same story dressed with a May/December romance on top as well. And you know how it goes, both parties have their respective issues, but the unlikely friendship they strike up creates a spark and usually unlocks something in the other, giving them the emotional tools to overcome their obstacles. But we ask: have you ever seen it with the former punk rocker turned disenfranchised mom and the wisecracking kid in the wheelchair?
That is to facetiously say, while “Kelly & Cal” flirts with interesting concepts under a superficial dynamic you haven’t seen paired before, ultimately its narrative is both familiar and predictable. Juliette Lewis stars as Kelly, a former punk turned mom now stifled in suburbia. Yearning for something meaningful, her fresh 3-month-old baby evidently doesn’t provide that, and her distant husband isn’t interested in sex (or possibly even her) despite the doctor’s A-OK. Nearby, is Cal (Jonny Weston), an oversexed, cocky teen in a wheelchair whose smart-alecky exterior belies the deep-seated frustrations he has with his lot in life.
Bonding over their outcast statuses on the fringes of this dull community—Kelly not connecting with any of the moms or people in the area, Cal feeling like a teen misfit and freak—the two begin to spend what eventually becomes an unhealthy amount of time together. At first it’s companionship to stave off boredom, then something resembling a true connection, and then something more. And if you see where this is going, well, that’s because it’s not hard to spot.
The film is the feature-length debut by Jen McGowan, and was written by Amy Lowe Starbin, and it makes some unfortunate and arguably unfeminist choices; one of them being the idea that Kelly is so starved for attention that she’ll flirt with a teenage boy to get some kind of validation. It’s also sometimes shocking just how disinterested the movie is with the baby and this rings rather false. Now a mother being completely alienated from her newborn—that could be an interesting track to follow given how maternal instincts are so ingrained and natural to most women (traveling upstream against this concept would be fresh). But the film is more interested in using the baby as a MacGuffin-like narrative pawn to dive into the story of a disenfranchised housewife, and that feel’s unfortunate in comparison. In fact, where the movie feels most genuine is in Kelly’s pining and nostalgia for her punk rock roots (and then maybe the addendum baby could have been written out of the screenplay entirely), but when it’s expressed in an outburst that has the mom dying her hair manic-panic blue, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at this hokey manifestation of trying to return to one’s roots.
Of course, the baby itself seems to mysteriously disappear for a big part of the second half of the narrative (mystery babysitter?) as Kelly and Cal’s issues become clearer. While understandable to a degree (the story is after all about Kelly and Cal’s relationship), it demonstrates how the baby is simply an afterthought device. Again, it’s disappointing because the conventional tale of an unfulfilled housewife who has to hook up with the younger guy to feed her ego is rather regrettable.
While the inspired dichotomy of veteran Juliette Lewis and up-and-comer Jonny Weston works well—their chemistry is authentic and they are the movie’s saving grace—so many other elements are problematic. It’s a shame, too, because Lewis hasn’t been this good in forever and Weston proves he’s an on-the-rise star worth keeping an eye on. As other characters go, the underserved husband played by Josh Hopkins is also just another tool in the story rather than a three-dimensional character and he conveniently behaves exactly as the screenplay needs him to rather than organically (disinterested and detached at first, then hurt later on). And his family, played by a decently well-written and empathetic Cybil Shepherd and a terribly-written, one-note Lucy Owen as the sister-in-law, wouldn’t last two fucking seconds in any household where the pushy and domineering in-laws enter her house and try and set rules for their daughter-in-law. None of that behavior seems to be rooted anything other than convenient movie logic, which is part of the film’s biggest issues.
While anchored by the aforementioned strong performances, too many unsurprising or banal plot clichés are abused. The romance—and how it goes wrong for everyone—is hackneyed, and perhaps more troubling is how the movie’s point of sympathy view is always shifting. Initially, it paints Kelly as indisputably unappreciated and unfulfilled, having to take care of a baby she’s barely connecting to all by herself and so her husband is the jackass. It seems to suggest her actions are justified (and perhaps they are), but by the end, the movie shifts over to his favor—he’s been working hard for her (which explains his emotional absence) and she’s been careless enough to almost throw it all away with an almost-fling with a teenage boy. And their attempts at reconciliation also fall flat considering Hopkins has barely been part of the film.
Frustratingly uneven, “Kelly & Cal” is too glib and prosaic to truly be insightful or impacting. While it’s a warm look at a questionable, unlikely friendship, it’s easy, foreseeable narrative choices suggest a movie that not only should have spent a lot more development time at the script stage, but could’ve stood to pay more attention to real and relatable human behavior. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. “Kelly & Cal” opens tomorrow.