Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Kelly (Juliette Lewis) is a punk-rocker whose life is changed by the birth of her son, while Cal (Jonny Weston) is a young man paralyzed after a declaration of love goes horribly wrong. Together they form a strong, compelling friendship that drives Kelly & Cal past conventional, independent film trappings and into something far more engaging. The film elaborates on its main characters and their day-to-day trappings often. Kelly mostly tends to her baby and deals with the constant struggles of new motherhood: her husband hasn’t slept with her in six months, she can’t sleep because the baby cries nonstop, and she can’t socialize since she’s mostly shacked up and taking care of the household. It’s not the life she’s accustomed to or the one she particularly wanted, considering she used to perform in a ’90s punk rock group with her girlfriends.
Her life’s been turned upside down and her everyday actions are monotonous and overwhelmingly boring, so when she meets Cal, her life changes quite a bit. He’s an eccentric, charming, slightly abrasive young man that doesn’t have a set career path after he became paralyzed. He thinks that Kelly’s hot and needs to socialize more but she cannot find success amongst the mommy groups. They repulse her. Cal ends up listening to Kelly’s music, reminiscing with her about their pasts, and developing strong feelings for the much older woman. Kelly’s husband, Josh (Josh Hopkins), is always caught up at work and Cal slyly convinces Kelly that he could be cheating on her. This leads to a harsh divide in the household while Kelly struggles to understand what her feelings are; she loves Cal as a person and begins to realize that her life is in a vastly different place than his.
The characters are eccentric and the performances elevate the material to something wholly unique. It’s rare to see a female lead character as raw as Kelly, with Lewis bringing her usual charm and effervescence to the role when it is required. She has been one of the most consistent actresses in the business, mostly delegated to supporting roles and shining most recently in the ensemble piece August: Osage County. She allows Kelly to be seen in her most intimate states: getting examined at the doctor’s office post-birth, topless through her bedroom window, and broken down and weak on the couch while her son cries. The voyeuristic approach to her makes Jen McGowan’s impressive direction shine all the more, since it allows us to see Kelly for who she is and everything that she is feeling. That’s also a testament to the strong characterizations within Amy Lowe Starbin’s script.
The third act of the film falls apart when it attempts to go for big, melodramatic moments. It is a cliché of the genre to have the film’s major conflict handled in a public, loud way, and sure enough Kelly & Cal stages its moment in an art gallery. The art even testifies to what just happened and what will happen. The set-up is poorly constructed and off-putting, particularly due to the subtleties of the rest of the feature. When supporting characters get emphasized and feel underdeveloped, too, the film falls into its own trappings. Kelly and Cal are the focal points of the film, and rightfully so. They are engaging, likable characters played by intelligent actors, with Weston also giving heart and texture to Cal’s crippled emotional and physical self. These are characters that face real challenges and appear unlike other protagonists from mainstream films. Kelly & Cal, then, feels original and involved, even if its conclusion doesn’t fully mesh with its build up.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)