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SXSW Review: ‘Kelly & Cal’ Starring Juliette Lewis & Jonny Weston

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
March 11, 2014 5:27 PM
7 Comments
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Kelly & Cal

The notions of a mother estranged from her own offspring and a millennial teen embittered with the rage, hard-luck and confinement of his paralysis are, on their own, distinct and interesting ideas worth investigating. And the indie “Kelly & Cal” takes both of these ideas and merges them together into what should ostensibly be a compelling exploration of two separate walks of life struggling with their own disenchantments. But frustratingly, the movie can’t seem to make much of either premise, and in fact, each suggestion is mostly just a façade to examine human nature elements that are far more banal.

“Kelly & Cal” takes these potential threads and drops them safely within the “unlikely friendship” genre you’ve seen before. You may have even witnessed this same story dressed with a May/December romance on top as well. And you know how it goes: both parties have their respective issues, but the unlikely friendship they strike up creates a spark and usually unlocks something in the other, giving them the emotional tools to overcome their obstacles. But we ask: have you ever seen it with the former punk rocker turned disenchanted mom and the wisecracking kid in the wheelchair?

That is to facetiously say, while “Kelly & Cal” flirts with interesting concepts under a superficial dynamic you haven’t seen paired before, ultimately its narrative is both familiar and predictable. Juliette Lewis stars as Kelly, a former punk rocker turned mom now stifled in suburbia. Yearning for something meaningful, her fresh 3-month-old baby evidently doesn’t provide that and her distant husband isn’t interested in sex (or possibly even her) despite the doctor’s A-OK. Nearby, is Cal (Jonny Weston), an oversexed, cocky teen in a wheelchair whose smart-alecky exterior belies the deep-seated frustrations he has with his lot in life.

Bonding over their outcast statuses on the fringes of this dull community—Kelly not connecting with any of the moms or people in the area, Cal feeling like a teen misfit and freak—the two begin to spend what eventually becomes an unhealthy amount of time together. At first it’s companionship to stave off boredom, then something resembling a true connection, and then something more. And if you see where this is going, well, that’s because it’s not hard to spot.

The film is the feature-length debut by Jen McGowan, and was written by Amy Lowe Starbin, and it makes some unfortunate and arguably unfeminist choices; one of them being the idea that Kelly is so starved for attention that she’ll flirt with a teenage boy to get some kind of validation. It’s also sometimes shocking just how disinterested the movie is with the baby and this rings rather false. Now a mother being completely alienated from her newborn—that could be an interesting track to follow given how maternal instincts are so ingrained and natural to most women (traveling upstream against this concept would be fresh). But the film is more interested in using the baby as a MacGuffin-like narrative pawn to dive into the story of a disenfranchised housewife, and that feel’s unfortunate in comparison. In fact, where the movie feels most genuine is in Kelly’s pining and nostalgia for her punk rock roots (and then maybe the addendum baby could have been written out of the screenplay entirely), but when it’s expressed in an outburst that has the mom dying her hair manic-panic blue, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at this hokey manifestation of trying to return to one’s roots.

Of course, the baby itself seems to mysteriously disappear for a big part of the second half of the narrative (mystery babysitter?) as Kelly and Cal’s issues become clearer. And while understandable to a degree (the story is after all about Kelly and Cal’s relationship), it demonstrates how the baby is simply an afterthought device. Again, it’s disappointing because the conventional tale of an unfulfilled housewife who has to hook up with the younger guy to feed her ego is rather regrettable.

While the inspired dichotomy of veteran Juliette Lewis and up-and-comer Jonny Weston works well—their chemistry is authentic and they are the movie’s saving grace—so many other elements are problematic. It’s a shame, too, because Lewis hasn’t been this good in forever and Weston proves he’s an on-the-rise star worth keeping an eye on. As other characters go, the underserved husband played by Josh Hopkins is also just another tool in the story rather than a three-dimensional character and he conveniently behaves exactly as the screenplay needs him to rather than organically (disinterested and detached at first, then hurt later on). And his family, played by a decently well-written and empathetic Cybil Shepherd and a terribly-written, one-note Lucy Owen as the sister-in-law, wouldn’t last two fucking seconds in any household where the pushy and domineering in-laws enter her house and try and set rules for their daughter-in-law. None of that behavior seems to be rooted anything other than convenient movie logic, which is part of the film’s biggest issues.

While anchored by the aforementioned strong performances, too many unsurprising or banal plot clichés are abused. The romance—and how it goes wrong for everyone—is hackneyed, and perhaps more troubling is how the movie’s point of sympathy view is always shifting. Initially, it paints Kelly as indisputably unappreciated and unfulfilled, having to take care of a baby she’s barely connecting to all by herself and so her husband is the jackass. It seems to suggest her actions are justified (and perhaps they are), but by the end, the movie shifts over to his favor—he’s been working hard for her (which explains his emotional absence) and she’s been careless enough to almost throw it all away with an almost-fling with a teenage boy. And their attempts at reconciliation also fall flat considering Hopkins has barely been part of the film.

Frustratingly uneven, “Kelly & Cal” is too glib and prosaic to truly be insightful or impacting. While it’s a warm look at a questionable, unlikely friendship, it’s easy, foreseeable narrative choices suggest a movie that not only should have spent a lot more development time at the script stage, but could’ve stood to pay more attention to real and relatable human behavior. [C]

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7 Comments

  • lep12 | March 13, 2014 3:40 PMReply

    Has it become common practice to let unqualified people critique film? I do not believe that Janet Maslin or A.O Scott or Roger Ebert would curse in a review

  • Miguel | March 13, 2014 2:03 PMReply

    Hey there. Sorry for not going through the proper channels, but I can't find contact info for you, but can you please correct the spelling of Cybill Shepherd's name? There are 2 Ls. Thanks in advance. Feel free to delete this comment. Thanks!!

  • filmbuff | March 13, 2014 11:48 AMReply

    It seems like the reviewer was watching a different movie then the rest of us.
    Either that or he chose to tune in and out when he wanted to. Otherwise i am not sure how to explain his question about a mystery babysitter that shows up to take the baby away. There is a whole scene that involves Cybil shepherd and the sister in law who come and say they will come over every afternoon to take care of the baby. It is a plot line that continues throughout the movie. He should at least get the facts straight about the story which was pretty clear to me.
    In addition, this review offends me as a woman and a mother. The sentence "given how maternal instincts are so ingrained and natural to most women" makes it clear that the reviewer has no understanding or experience with women what so ever. Obviously he is not the target audience, but in that case stick to the movie (which he obviously wasn't following) and don't make broad silly comments about women and motherhood which he knows nothing about.
    I also don't know why a movie that is directed by woman automatically gets put in either a feminist or non feminist category. What has that got to do with anything? Would that ever be a topic being brought up in a review if the director and screenwriter weren't female? No one said that every female filmmaker has to plant the feminist flag in every creative endeavor. Not that i agree with his comment about this film being anti feminist - i just don't see why it is relevant to the review.

  • Mama2 | March 12, 2014 4:09 PMReply

    Holy cow! What movie did this guy see? This movie is the most honest look at crossroads I've ever seen! I question the maturity of the reviewer.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | March 12, 2014 7:02 AMReply

    I want to bugger Juliette Lewis (as the bird was in 1991 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • Oliver | March 12, 2014 5:45 AMReply

    Yes, its weird, isnt it? From all the reviews about this film, this is by far the most negative. Variety gave it a pretty stellar review :)

  • SuzieQ786 | March 12, 2014 2:10 AMReply

    Holy wow! I was at the premiere on Friday and I have to say you must have seen a completely different film than the rest of the audience. This is an incredible movie, Juliette Lewis is insanely good and I cannot help but believe that you don't connect with the material because you're not even a little bit the audience for the film. It's a shame you're not a good enough reviewer to appreciate the very genuine reaction from the intended audience. I predict awards and a long life for this terrific movie. Anyway... good luck to you, maybe you'll see some more films and as you grow up you'll appreciate that a lot of people connect to films that are outside of your personal life experience. As a woman, as a human, I LOVED THIS FILM.

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