If Kelly & Cal had been co-opted by a major studio, cast with marquee stars, say Cameron Diaz and Josh Hutcherson, the result would be nauseating. Thanks to Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston in the titular roles, Kelly & Cal is elevated above its ultimately deadening formulaic trappings. It doesn’t start out that way, though. When we first meet her, Kelly is trapped in suburban purgatory, straddled with a newborn who cries as much as Jack Nance’s spawn in Eraserhead, and is just as alien to Kelly. Her suspiciously workaholic husband Josh (Josh Hopkins) is perfectly content on the couch after his insanely demanding workday, his eyes glued to Battlebots or some mind-numbing robot fighting facsimile. Josh isn’t a bad guy, just aloof, overworked, and hasn’t made the leap to post-pregnancy sex with Kelly. Drudgery and existential ennui, not outright marital tumult, leads Kelly to the backyard to sneak cigarettes and pout.
It’s here that the story takes off, as Cal approaches Kelly through their shared fence, asking to bum a cigarette while overzealously complimenting Kelly’s postnatal body. Cal’s hand is curiously hooked as he smokes, blowing smoke rings the way a 14-year-old does to impress a girl or his friends. Kelly can only see his face. He’s boyishly handsome, immediately charming and confident. The remarks push her over the edge, and when she stands, she realizes that Cal is wheelchair bound. Thus begins Kelly’s curiosity, and on a halfhearted outing with the baby who fails to win her any new-mommy friends, Kelly spots Cal on the street and the two strike up an easy conversation, eventually leading back to Cal’s man cave in his parent’s garage. The scenes with Kelly and Cal shooting the shit, talking music (in her “former” life, Kelly was a bassist in a lo-fi Sleater-Kinney-type girl band), are nearly priceless. Weston is a discovery in this role, portraying Cal as a naturally cool high school kid, stricken by a freak accident that has left him damaged physically and mentally. He’s bitter about his situation, but attacks life like a Murderballer, not letting his handicap define him.
Lewis is wonderfully understated, having finally found a part that feels like the approximation of her as a woman, and not some shrieking hellcat. It’s hard to play “cool,” and the trick that Lewis uses is not to oversell it. Kelly was certainly cool, as any female bassist is, and it’s what draws Cal to her. He sees past her sexless self-consciousness and sad Mommy current state and is attracted to the artist and riot grrrl lurking beneath the surface. All this is wonderful and rings true, and this little Kelly/Cal bubble is so good that the melodrama to follow hurts so much. The padding to the story, namely Josh and his overbearing mother and sister, is handled so ham-fistedly that it feels like first-time director Jen McGowan spent so much time on Kelly and Cal that she essentially forgot the subplots. Cybill Shepard as Josh’s mom and Julie Owen as sister-in-law Julie are called in by Josh as a last-ditch effort to “save” Kelly after she dyes her hair electric blue. Shepard is wasted, and Julie is a one-dimensional shrew, acting so awkward and mechanically that it’s as if they’re meeting Kelly for the first time whenever they pop over to meddle.
Things take an unwelcome turn in the third act, sadly, for Kelly and Cal. Their natural rapport is broken once Cal steals a kiss, and from there, things veer into American Beauty territory. Yes, there’s a curtain parted voyeur scene that this movie should know it’s above. A scene at an art show, in which Cal stridently proclaims his love for Kelly, turns into a tired shouting match, with all the regulars inexplicably turning up for the big eruption. When Kelly breaks bad, her rejuvenation is invigorating. When she shuffles back into her suburban minutiae, it feels painful. McGowan attempts to end on a positive note, but since Josh is so underwritten, and the baby nothing more than a screeching nuisance, Kelly’s fate seems more like begrudging acceptance than joyful reunion. For a film that boldly flips the Lolita scenario, it’s sad to see everything end so predictably.