The things that are good about Jen McGowan’s debut feature Kelly & Cal are so very good that it would be altogether too easy to overpraise the film — and that would do no one any favors. It is a small-scale film. Its ambitions are not overwhelming — nor are its reasonably modest ambitions always achieved. What is achieved is a splendid character piece concerning a mid-late 30s woman and a disabled 17-year-old boy — splendidly acted by Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston (John Dies at the End). That the characters surrounding them don’t really work matters very little whenever they’re onscreen together or by themselves — and fortunately that accounts for most of the movie. However, it’s impossible to just ignore that the movie loses ground every time the supporting cast intrudes.
Lewis plays Kelly, a former punk rocker who is now a housewife with a baby. Josh (Josh Hopkins), the artist she married, now works in advertising and has become extremely inattentive since the birth of their child. He even seems slightly horrified by the prospect that they can have sex again a mere six weeks after childbirth. To say that this is not a good situation would be fair. Enter into her world Cal (Weston), a 17-year-old in wheelchair. There’s no way around noting that they have a “meet cute” where he bums a cigarette off her, compliments her breasts and is sent packing — before she realizes he’s in a wheelchair (he was behind a fence), making her feel bad about being so abrupt with him. They meet again — essentially her doing — when she’s taking the baby out in a stroller. She likes him because he’s attentive — and enthused over the fact that she was once in a punk band. He likes her because, unlike most people, she looks him in the eye and takes him at face value.
Naturally, this friendship leads to more of a relationship than Kelly intended — and one that certainly means more to Cal than is appropriate in light of their respective ages. Not surprisingly, the age thing neither bothers, nor deters him. For Kelly it’s more awkward, but the impact is undeniable, since it provides companionship that allows her to delve into who and what she wanted to be rather than who and what she’s become. When she shows up at a family function, horrifying everyone with her freshly-dyed electric-blue hair, mother-in-law Bev (Cybill Shepherd) and sister-in-law Julie (Lucy Owen) attempt to stage a kind of intervention. They have no idea — nor does Josh — that Cal is involved in any way, and, in fact, their combined efforts actually make it just that much easier for Kelly to spend time with Cal.
This is basically sound — up to a point. The problem is that every character who isn’t Kelly or Cal is effectively a clueless boob of a caricature. The in-laws may be well-intentioned — and they are sometimes amusing — but they’re too ridiculous to believe. Josh isn’t much better, though he’s more of an uncomprehending bore than ridiculous. Cal’s mother (Margaret Colin) is equally oblivious. Even minor characters like a neighborhood mothers’ group are nothing but props to make Kelly’s relationship with Cal look not just like good judgment, but the only rational choice she could make. If the film actually followed through in this manner, it might work, but, of course, it doesn’t. It’s going to ultimately bring Kelly to her senses, because, well, it’s a movie and follows what movies are supposed to follow, especially when the alternative is improper and not sensible.
Overlooking this, however, the two leads are terrific and share mismatched chemistry that’s otherwise lacking in the film. Watching their relationship is very worthwhile, and the dialogues between them feel real — even when the film edges toward the inevitable. Similarly, Jen McGowan’s filmmaking is a breath of fresh air in the world of indie film. Here is someone working in that realm who actually knows what a tripod is and isn’t afraid to use one. Oh, there are some handheld shots — mostly late in the film — but they’re not distracting or deliberately shaky. It will be very interesting to see what she does next. Not Rated, but contains adult themes and language.