The suburbs are an interesting place to find friends. It’s a land of play-dates, moms clubs and block parties. If you don’t make friends through work or school, you’re usually going to be out of luck, especially if you’re too punk rock to do something so conventional. This can lead to some interesting meetings, such as having a run-in with the neighborhood peeping Tom and building a friendship from there. Or, at least that’s the case in Jen McGowan’s Kelly & Cal, where a lonely new mom and a lonely, newly-handicapped high schooler bond over similar taste in music and a shared distaste for their lifestyles.
Despite a less than amicable first meeting, the relationship develops for simple enough reasons. Kelly (Juliette Lewis) is the only one who talks to Cal (Jonny Weston) like a real person, instead of constantly acting like she pities him. That isn’t even necessarily because she doesn’t feel sorry for him, but rather because she’s too tired with life to really give a damn about being sensitive. That’s enough for Cal, as it’s the first somewhat real relationship he’s had in a long time.
In Cal, former punk-rocker Kelly finds the first person who’s looked at her with any sexual interest since she got pregnant. That lets her feel like more than a lame suburban mom for once, which is something she desperately craves. It’s clearly not the healthiest basis for a friendship, but the pair dives in anyway, spending more and more time together until things definitely cross the line into something that’s not quite socially acceptable for a married mother and a high school senior.
In recent years we’ve seen an abundance of tales about unlikely friendships. The social conventions surrounding who should and shouldn’t be friends makes for some fascinating relationships, and plenty of filmmakers have tried to take advantage of that. Considering it’s such a character-driven sub-genre, the success of similar films is almost always entirely contingent on the performances of the leads. That’s the case in Kelly & Cal as well, and both actors turn in phenomenal performances, strong enough to carry the film to a wholly enjoyable watch.
Juliette Lewis is tasked with looking tired, bored and depressed for 95% of the film. Many times when a character is described by those three adjectives, the same ones could be used to describe the viewer as well. Thankfully, that is definitely not the case here. Even when Kelly is at her lowest, there’s a sign of something exciting trying to find a way to escape. The 5% of scenes when she doesn’t seem to hate her life serve as a stark contrast to the rest. It’s in those moments that all her dispirited existence is replaced by pure jubilation, and the drastic change makes that happiness all the more enjoyable to see.
While Kelly is a character with many elements that most people can probably relate to, Cal is a lot more complex in that aspect. There’s a ton going on for him, between dealing with his new-found disability without being sentimental and trying to find himself at an age when that’s more important than any. He’s smart enough to be bored to a level of desperation, which is a bad spot to be in. Jonny Weston plays nearly every aspect of that complexity perfectly and he’s absolutely fantastic as Cal.
There’s a scene early on where Kelly visits Cal in his home and Cal lifts his useless leg with his hands in order to cross it. In that moment of messing with Kelly, the tone for his character is instantly set. He’s cocky, he’s charming, and he wants the world to know that no matter how hurt he is inside, he doesn’t want their pity. That moment only lasts a few seconds, but it sums up how impressive Weston’s performance is better than any. You may not be too familiar with his work right now, but after watching Kelly & Cal, I have little doubt that he’s primed to become a huge name very soon.
What’s most impressive about Amy Lowe Starbin’s script is the fact that neither of the characters are in a position that’s conventionally dramatic, yet their stories still come together in a way that’s captivating. It isn’t as if any aspect of Kelly’s life is terrible enough to lead her into the arms of a teenager. Sure, her husband isn’t as affectionate as she may like and her baby seems to loathe her touch, but things could be a lot worse. The same goes for Cal. We aren’t meeting him at the moment of his accident or when he’s first rehabbing his injuries. By the time the movie begins, he’s become pretty accustomed to what his life has become, or at least as accustomed as anyone will get to being partially paralyzed. There’s no huge drama that comes inherently with either of their situations, but rather a lack of drama, and it’s a remarkable feat to build an interesting story off of that.
Admittedly, the film isn’t perfect, not by any means. It’s that very lack of drama that I mentioned above which sometimes leads to lulls, but every lull is relatively short-lived and soon enough the story is captivating again. Also, the supporting performances aren’t nearly as strong as those turned in by the leads. Still, those weaknesses are overshadowed in every way by the strength of the film’s greater parts.
Kelly & Cal is an interesting take on an unconventional relationship, where flawed, yet likeable characters face real problems. The story progresses organically, and from start to finish it’s a treat to watch. Even though the plot isn’t the lightest, the wonderful chemistry between Lewis and Weston makes for a charming tale and a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Driven by phenomenal performances from its two leads, Kelly & Cal is a fascinating story about the problems that an unconventional relationship can cause.