Film Review – Kelly & Cal
Kelly & Cal
The title of writer Amy Lowe Starbin and director Jen McGowan’s film is Kelly & Cal (2014), but this is more about Kelly than it is about Cal. Kelly is played by Juliette Lewis, in a nice, subdued turn. The problem is, Lewis tries to inject an authentic performance in a story that does not have authenticity. She is unfortunately swimming against the current, attempting to breathe life into a character when the flow of the narrative keeps pushing her towards the shallow end.
Kelly is a first-time mom trying to adjust to suburban life. You see, years ago, Kelly was a punk-rock rebel, playing in a band and causing all kinds of mischief. Now entering middle age, she finds herself living in a nice neighborhood with her husband Josh (Josh Hopkins) who is constantly at work, and a child who won’t stop crying. She’s drifted into a malaise. Her pregnancy left her feeling unattractive to Josh, she isn’t sure how best to take care of her baby, and she senses the leering eyes of neighbors who aren’t sure what to make of her. Instead of playing with her band, Kelly now spends time pushing a stroller around the local park.
Clearly, she’s in a midlife crisis. Is this what she really wanted? We aren’t given enough to understand why she sacrificed her way of living to move out to the suburbs. Her relationship with Josh isn’t developed enough to see how deep their bond has grown. Josh operates only as a source of neglect. When he is home, he sits around watching TV, and only perks up when his mother (Cybill Shepherd) comes by with some home-cooked food. A little is made of him being an artist in his younger days, but only in light brush strokes. We never get a sense why Kelly fell in love with this guy at all. He’s more country, she’s more rock and roll.
We first assume the plot will guide us in seeing Kelly adjust to this environment, but no. Instead, the film shifts to focus on her budding friendship with Cal (Jonny Weston). Cal is a high school senior who—after a tragic accident—has been left in a wheelchair. What starts out as a cautious back and forth soon grows into respect and admiration. Cal is an outcast, as well, and has qualities that remind Kelly of her youth.
The further the story unfolds, the less realistic it becomes. Once Kelly and Cal interact, we see Kelly unleash her individualistic sensibilities. That’s all fine and dandy, but these instances of her “being unique” are very thin and easy in terms of character traits. Dyeing her hair a different color, smoking and drinking, listening to her band on cassette tapes, etc. These examples all remain on a surface level, not once do they dig deeper to explore her fears, her thoughts on her family (who exist as a second fiddle), or her nostalgic longing for the past. A late-night outing Kelly and Cal make at the high school gym (set to some heavy-handed music), only punctuates the idea that we’re simply going through the motions of Kelly’s internal struggle, instead of truly examining and processing it.
Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston have good on screen chemistry. Lewis has the stand-out role, but Weston holds his own. He’s required to be funny, sarcastic, vulnerable, and angry, and, for the most part, he pulls it off. However, even though Lewis and Weston work well together, Kelly and Cal do not work together as characters. What are we supposed to make of a forty-year-old woman and a high school kid, bonding? What good is going to come of their interaction? We can see bad things coming from a mile away, and when they do happen, the characters are surprised, but we’re not. Imagine if the roles were reversed—if a forty-year-old man snuck away from his family to hang out with a high school girl – would it be more or less believable within this context? The writing and direction did not do a good enough job making me forget how inappropriate this dynamic is. I couldn’t shake the notion that this relationship is just wrong.
The most egregious thing about Kelly & Cal is how other characters mistreat Kelly, and the levels they go to to do so. I’m not sure what Starbin and McGowan were trying to say (if anything at all), but it appeared they made it a point to embarrass and humiliate her at every opportunity. From the neglect by Josh, the condescending advice she gets from her in-laws, to even arguments she gets into with Cal, things get very nasty towards Kelly almost the entire way through. This recurring theme is highlighted in a cringe-worthy scene where Josh’s mother and sister (Lucy Owen) attempt to perform a domestic makeover for Kelly, and she goes through it without a single word of resistance. There are two opposing forces at play: the film wants us to cheer for Kelly, but spends most of the time emotionally beating her down.
If it weren’t for Juliette Lewis’s strong central performance, there wouldn’t be much else here to recommend. The story is unconvincing, moves at a glacier’s pace, and overstays its welcome. See it for yourself, or don’t.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FejIcLkcabQ&w=560&h=315]