Not rated | Time: 1:47
The distance between riot grrrl and suburban mom is quite a stretch. But as middle age approaches, time has a way of landing mouthy young rebels in roles they never expected to inhabit.
Take Juliette Lewis, the personification of scary defiance alongside Woody Harrelson as her partner in crime in “Natural Born Killers.”
But people grow up. In “Kelly & Cal,” Lewis, 41, conveys the excruciating discomfort of a slightly crumpled former upstart struggling to adapt to a staid, middle-class existence. That means reining in the anarchic impulses of her youth and tolerating polite, buttoned-up in-laws.
Politeness doesn’t come naturally to her character, Kelly, a former punk rocker accustomed to expressing herself in blunt profanity. Kelly was once in an all-female punk band named Wetnap and has the audiocassettes to prove it. A fragment of the group’s best-known song, “Moist Towelette,” is heard in the movie. If it doesn’t sound flagrantly transgressive, you still get the idea.
Now a wife and mother who has recently settled with her husband, Josh (Josh Hopkins), in a quiet suburb where she doesn’t know anyone, Kelly is having trouble bonding with her colicky 6-month-old son, Jackson. Her husband, once an aspiring artist with a rebellious streak, is now an advertising executive who toils long hours.
Although their flaming passion has diminished to a flicker, he is a patient, devoted mate. At one point, Kelly is shown fondling herself while looking at a picture of George Clooney.
Sexually frustrated, acutely aware of her age and nostalgic for the old days, if a little embarrassed by her past, Kelly finds an unexpected soul mate in Cal (Jonny Weston), a disabled 17-year-old who lives down the street. They first meet at her backyard fence, where he asks if he can bum a cigarette and compliments Kelly on her figure, using inappropriate language.
Where Kelly feels emotionally confined in her placid suburban environment, Cal is physically confined. He suffered a spinal injury from a fall while trying to impress his high school sweetheart in a dangerous stunt and now uses a wheelchair. Adding to the sting, the girl subsequently took up with his best friend.
A capsule summary of “Kelly & Cal,” the directorial feature debut of Jen McGowan, from a screenplay by Amy Lowe Starbin, might make it sound like a sentimental celebration of the healing power of friendship between alienated individuals facing uncertain futures. But this modest, finely acted movie avoids the usual detours that are the bane of films about disabled youth.
Instead of trying to elicit tears, “Kelly & Cal” is a small, sensitive portrait of two lonely people uncertainly exploring personal boundaries. Cal is not a noble sufferer, but an angry former daredevil fuming after an unfortunate mishap. He makes no secret of his attraction to Kelly, who doesn’t respond until she lets herself go one evening when they play at being prom dates and break into an empty high school gym. As she sits on his lap, he wheels them around in a playful delirium that culminates with a spontaneous kiss.
Within its formulaic outlines, “Kelly & Cal” largely avoids seeming pat and contrived. It goes out of its way to flesh out subsidiary characters, like Cal’s caring mother (Margaret Colin), whom he disparages behind her back, and Kelly’s strait-laced mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd), who pressures her into a cosmetic makeover after she dyes her hair blue. The film parallels Kelly’s difficulty in bonding with her young son and Cal’s reflexive hostility toward his mother.
Most important, the performances of Lewis and Weston crackle with authenticity. Like a good punk-rock song, this bracingly honest, tough-minded vignette stays true to itself.
(At Screenland Armour.)
| Stephen Holden
The New York Times