The inspired match-up of underserved veteran Juliette Lewis and breakout newcomer Jonny Weston powers “Kelly & Cal,” a warmly observed tale of two outcasts bonding in stifling suburbia. With the sort of relaxed charm that marked the early work of Nicole Holofcener, this disarming pic navigates tricky emotional territory to emerge as an impressive feature debut for helmer Jen McGowan and scribe Amy Lowe Starbin. It deserves a little TLC from a thoughtful distrib able to spotlight the worthy work both in front of and behind the camera.
We meet Kelly (Lewis) just six weeks after she’s given birth to her first child, Jackson. Suffering from a mild case of postpartum depression, she feels disconnected from her newborn, her emotionally distant husband, Josh (Josh Hopkins), and the cozy but utterly foreign suburban neighborhood they’ve recently moved to. It’s not until mischievous teen Cal (Weston) tries to bum a cigarette through the fence in Kelly’s backyard that she finds someone she clicks with. Except Cal, still in high school and confined to a wheelchair as the result of a recent and somewhat mysterious accident, isn’t exactly the most socially appropriate friend for a thirtysomething mom.
With Josh typically working late at the office and Cal’s parents giving him space in a backyard shed they’ve made handicap-accessible, Kelly finds herself making repeated clandestine visits to see her new pal. Over time, Cal opens up about the girlfriend who cut and run after his spinal injury, and Kelly reminisces about her days in a punk-rock girl band called Wet-nap (their signature song, “Moist Towelette,” sounds absurd but proves surprisingly credible with spot-on vocals by Lewis herself). Flattered by the attention and desperate for someone rebellious to whom she can relate, Kelly subtly encourages Cal’s brazen flirting until the will-they-or-won’t-they aspect of the relationship reaches a crucial turning point.
The chemistry between Lewis and Weston couldn’t be more appealing throughout, as their distinct energies perfectly complement the characters and each other. Often relegated to quirky support as a friend or sibling, Lewis shines in what feels like a tailor-made leading role, nailing every delicate shift in Kelly’s insecurity over marriage and motherhood, while never losing sight of the punk goddess lurking within. It’s spirited, sexy work that reveals Lewis is game for just about anything — from dying her hair bright blue to an attempt at pleasuring herself with inspiration from George Clooney’s Rolling Stone cover (a throwaway gag made all the funnier by the inside knowledge that Clooney produced Lewis’ previous film, “August: Osage County”).
Weston, who previously had a co-headlining role in Curtis Hanson’s little-seen surf drama “Chasing Mavericks,” commands the screen as a young man whose outward confidence barely contains the hotbed of teenage emotions and hormones bubbling beneath the surface. It’s no stretch to believe Cal could catch the fancy of a woman twice his age, though Starbin’s sharp screenplay prioritizes emotional over physical intimacy. And McGowan’s sensitive handling of the material strives for authenticity in a story that easily could’ve drown in indie dramedy preciousness.
“Kelly & Cal” initially seems to have little interest in its supporting players, but slowly pulls back from the tight focus on the title characters to illuminate other points of view. At first blush, Kelly’s goody-goody mother-in-law (Cybill Shepherd), and tightly wound sister-in-law (Lucy Owen) come off like one-dimensional perky blonde caricatures, before revealing depths Kelly never imagined they possessed. The same goes for Cal’s mom (Margaret Colin), who, Kelly discovers, barely resembles the self-absorbed monster Cal makes her out to be. Even Hopkins’ seemingly hopeless husband gets his due by the end.
Pro tech package is led by the adroit handheld lensing of Philip Lott (who happens to be McGowan’s husband) and clean cutting from David Hopper. Toby Chu’s lovely score blends nicely with a selection of perfectly chosen tunes including pivotal use of Cyndi Lauper’s ’80s ballad “All Through the Night.” Lewis contributes a second original song, “Change,” over the closing credits.