Kelly & Cal, directed by Jen McGowan, is about the unlikely friendship between unhappy new mom Kelly (Juliette Lewis) and depressed teen in a wheelchair Cal (Jonny Weston) that takes a few turns in the wrong direction, even as it helps them both cope with their troubles.
Kelly has just had her first baby, in a new home in a suburban town, and at first it seems as if she exists in a vacuum. She’s home taking care of the baby while her husband Josh (Josh Hopkins) works late hours, and it isn’t explained for quite awhile what he does or what Kelly used to do. It’s obvious though that she’s an edgy, artsy type who doesn’t feel comfortable in her new role as mom – or her new location – and that she’s afraid of screwing it all up. She is also surprisingly passive, putting up with daily visits from her mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd) and bitter sister-in-law (Lucy Owen) with whom she has nothing in common, as well as her husband’s lack of help and lack of interest in post-baby sex.
Kelly is sneaking a cigarette in her backyard when Cal pops up over the fence – a good-looking, cocky teenager who announces that he can see her change through her window. After she tells them off, she sees that he’s in a wheelchair, and after flagging him down later in the neighborhood, she starts to visit him whenever she walks the baby in the stroller. As Kelly tells Josh after their first meeting, Cal seems like the first normal person she’s met in the neighborhood, but it makes sense that she responds to him because she’s so youthful herself, and through their visits, we learn first that she used to play bass in a rock band and later, that she went to art school. She learns that Cal was an artist with a good chance at a scholarship before his accident, which cost him his fine motor skills, and that his girlfriend dumped him after he was injured.
It’s obvious from the start that Cal has a crush on Kelly, but everything is innocent at first. Cal is very likable in that inconsistent adolescent way; one minute he seems very perceptive and intelligent, and the next, he blurts out something inappropriate. Weston does a great job of making him sympathetic even when he’s out of line, and he brings an intensity to the role that is fitting for a frustrated artist and a smart kid. Juliette Lewis is vulnerable and charming as Kelly, and so expressive that it’s always interesting to watch her face.
Because both characters are likeable and they do have chemistry, I felt torn between wanting something to happen, and thinking, “No, no, please don’t take it there…!” The fact that, around Cal’s mother (Elizabeth Perkins) and Josh, both of them automatically pretend to be mentor and student instead of friends is already a warning sign. Things start to get out of hand when Cal invites Kelly out to what is supposed to be an event for a Special Teens organization, which is never fully explained, and takes her instead to his high school to drink and goof around in what is suddenly, obviously a date.
There are some nail-biting moments in the third act, which goes in some unexpected directions, especially since a brief summary of the film might make one think of those terrible cases where teachers are caught having relationships with their students, but that’s definitely not the situation here. There were a few time-jumps (I think) that weren’t immediately clear, which made it feel like some helpful scenes had been edited out; for example, I never quite understood whether Cal actually nominated Kelly for a mentor award or not. I do recommend the movie though, which is out now, especially for the two lead performances, and also for a well-done overall message of never giving up.
Images courtesy of IFCFilms