The hardest thing to do in movies is not to show giant robots fighting each other while riding dinosaurs. Nor is it to show the uprising of an ape army, to depict the adventures of a team of intergalactic superheroes, or to make the concept of six-foot talking turtles seem credible. No, the hardest thing to do in movies is to create a story so dramatically and emotionally authentic that it makes you feel as though you’re using some special kind of magic to peer right into the lives of real people. This is why Kelly & Cal, the debut feature from Jen McGowan, feels like a tiny little miracle. Here’s a slice-of-life film that hits almost every beat just right. When it’s over, you can’t help but wish that you could spend more time with its central characters.
Juliette Lewis plays Kelly, a one-time punk rocker who is now a suburban wife and mother. She’s got postpartum depression. Actually, she’s got all kinds of depression. Her husband (Josh Hopkins) is busy with work and seemingly uninterested in intimacy. She struggles to bond with her infant. Her meddling mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd) doesn’t help with her misguided suggestions for becoming happy again. An attempt to connect with other moms in the park goes disastrously wrong, leading Kelly to wonder if she’s cut out for the life she’s living. One day, a neighbor peers over her fence and starts a conversation. He is Cal (Jonny Weston), a high school student confined to a wheelchair. Desperate for socialization, Kelly begins hanging out with Cal. He doesn’t judge her and, in fact, isn’t afraid to call her out on her moodiness. She plays him one of her old songs and regales him with stories of her wild youth. Before you know it, she starts to come out of her funk. But Cal is not the carefree individual he initially seems to be. There’s a well of anger inside that gets triggered, giving Kelly the chance to help him, just as he has helped her.
Kelly & Cal is the kind of movie that encourages you to observe its characters and rewards you greatly when you do. With the exception of one third-act scene involving a sculpture Cal makes, there are no big moments of fabricated drama. Instead, this is a story about the little moments. McGowan, working from an excellent screenplay by Amy Lowe Starbin, sets a tone that feels true-to-life, then allows the audience to study the way Kelly and Cal tentatively form a relationship that grows and deepens in ways they don’t expect. There is a wonderful specificity to the film, in the way subtle lines of dialogue or tiny bits of body language reveal things about the characters and illuminate how their connection grows. Even the comedic moments have a ring of truth to them; the jokes are never forced, and the actors are never caught going for the laugh. Taking such a subtle approach is difficult, yet it also proves the most satisfying. Although seemingly polar opposites, Kelly and Cal gradually reveal sides of themselves that make their friendship — and a couple of occasions when they test its boundaries — all of which feels richly convincing.
Juliette Lewis is perhaps not the obvious choice to play Kelly, but she’s a revelation. The actress has always had a knack for showing a slightly wild side on camera, and that quality is used to good effect here. You wouldn’t, however, normally think to cast her as a depressed mother. Going against type that way really underscores the later scenes, in which Kelly reconnects with who she used to be and honestly still is somewhere inside. The character has essentially repressed herself. She’s traded one dream for another, then found herself wondering if the choice was right. Lewis skillfully captures Kelly’s dissonance as she struggles with missing her old life while also wanting to make her new life pleasurable. It’s a fantastic performance. Jonny Weston (Chasing Mavericks) is equally good, in a role that could have gone very wrong in other hands. Cal seems like he’s accepted his injury. He laughs and jokes about it, and in some respects even romanticizes it. Underneath, though, he has real bitterness about the circumstances that led him to be wheelchair-bound. Weston is neither too maudlin nor too overbearing. He makes Cal a kid-next-door who would cry for help if he thought anyone would hear him, and does once he meets the person who will.
Kelly & Cal deals with ambitious themes such as repression of identity and postpartum depression, in addition to more general themes like friendship. So much has been written about the lack of strong female characters onscreen. Just as much has been written about the need for more female filmmakers behind the camera. Kelly & Cal has a very strong female lead dealing with things many women will relate to. And McGowan proves herself a director to watch. At the same time, the movie will appeal to viewers of either gender, provided they love seeing a good human story, told with skill and insight. This is a movie about people trying to define themselves amid unexpected obstacles life has dropped in their paths. In the end, they learn a valuable lesson: If you do it right, your self-identity doesn’t change from encountering these obstacles, it evolves. Sensitive, funny, and true, Kelly & Cal is easily one of the best independent films of the year.