The Kelly of Kelly & Cal, a new drama from director Jen McGowan, is a first-time mother and the change of life is not coming easy. When we first meet Kelly (Juliette Lewis) she’s at the hospital in the middle of her six-week check up. The off-screen voice of the female doctor is friendly, professional and detached as she gives Kelly the all-clear, but from the passive look on the young mother’s face and the distant look in her eyes, you sense that perhaps Kelly’s not entirely happy, and you’d be right.
“Am I gross to you?” Kelly asks her husband Josh (Josh Hopkins), who appears more interested in watching TV than attending to either the crying baby or his wife. It’s not that he’s intentionally ignoring her; he’s simply not on the same page, which only adds to Kelly’s quiet frustration.
At this early point, there’s already a danger of misreading what kind of film Kelly & Cal might be. Even though you’ve only just met the young married couple and their continuously crying newborn, you fear the setup is leading to a domestic drama of overwrought histrionics between husband and wife: Any moment a shouting match is about to occur, backed by the continuous cry of a newborn threatening to drown them out. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, Kelly sighs and quietly retires to her bedroom holding a copy of Rolling Stone with George Clooney on the cover and climbs into bed using the picture as inspiration for a private moment of self-pleasure and relief, and it’s at that moment when the tone of the film – or perhaps your reaction to it – changes.
It changes even further when Kelly meets her teenage neighbor Cal (Jonny Weston) for the first time in an exchange over the backyard fence. First, Cal snags a cigarette from the woman, then asks for a match, then asks Kelly to light it for him. The conversation is at first antagonistic. The teenager suddenly compliments Kelly on the size of her breasts causing a startled Kelly to admonish the brazen young man. “Well, draw the curtains if you don’t want the whole neighborhood to see you breast feed,” he declares and makes his exits. When Kelly peers over the fence ready to argue further, she suddenly stops. Cal is a paraplegic. “He gets a free pass just because he’s in a wheelchair?” Josh asks when she later relates the event to her husband.
What becomes evident – not to mention a relief from the kind of film you might have thought Kelly & Cal was about to be – is the immediate and obvious chemistry between Lewis and Weston. They work well together and their conversations are smart, sharply written by Amy Lowe Starbin and a lot of fun. As the film progresses, the scenes and the exchanges between the two characters are so enjoyable that when the story moves away from the odd couple and explores the relationship between Kelly and her in-laws you can’t wait for the film to take us back to the two leads; each new scene with Kelly and Cal delivers a surprise.
Despite a strong performance from Weston, the film belongs to Lewis. She owns it. Watching the subtle changes of expression and the natural delivery of her voice, Kelly & Cal showcases Lewis in a way previous films have never quite captured. When Kelly takes the baby for a stroll in the park and discovers the child actually enjoys being outside, the slightest hint of a smile on the woman’s face tells you everything about the moment.
There’s also a nice, underlining sense of good humor throughout. Once a bass player for a band called Wetnap, Kelly obviously misses and yearns for the rock ‘n roll life she used to have. Becoming friends with the brazen boy next door injects a new sense of vitality in the woman. After telling Cal that her husband’s family can be so 1950’s, for her amusement she dyes her long, dark hair to a punk inspired fluorescent turquoise and reveals it for the first time at a backyard family barbecue, just to enjoy their reaction. “I wasn’t always a suburban housewife,” she tells Cal after playing a few licks on his guitar. “I was young and wild once.”
The film also looks good. Cinematographer Philip Lott uses mostly medium shots on the widescreen allowing us to see the distance of a relationship between the characters rather than forcing us into unnecessary, intimate close-ups when none are required. It also gives us a chance to see actors act and how they react to each other, rather than dictating where our focus of attention should be. When Kelly meets a small group of mothers with their babies in the park and inquires whether they’re all part of some local mother’s group, they’re all in the frame. You can see the subtle moment of disappointment on Kelly’s face after she inquires about joining them. Instead of being invited to sit down, one of the women tells Kelly she can apply on-line for membership, including a small fee. “For snacks and that sort of thing,” the woman adds.
With good support from Cybill Shepherd as the well-intentioned mother-in-law, Lucy Owen as the equally well-intentioned sister-in-law and Margaret Colin as Cal’s mother who in one brief scene shows she’s hardly the monster Cal has painted her, Kelly & Cal is a pleasant surprise. The conclusion isn’t memorable. In fact, within a few days you may not remember a lot of what happened in the film, but you will remember the leads, particularly Juliette Lewis who here has really come of age. We now need to see her more often.
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)