Kelly & Cal is a romantic drama complicated by a stroller and a wheelchair, and its first mistake is in assuming some kind of equity between the two vehicles. The stroller belongs to Kelly (Juliette Lewis), a new mother and former riot grrrl, married and recently relocated from the city to the suburbs. The wheelchair belongs to Cal (Jonny Weston), a neighborhood high school senior whose archetypal adolescence is hampered by a fall from the local water tower. The pair, both suddenly disenfranchised and sexually frustrated, bond in their newfound alienation.
Jen McGowan’s film lacks the nerve of its premise. Its tense early minutes feature an endlessly wailing baby and the disembodied voice of a gynecologist rushing through a checkup. The trauma of new motherhood, filmed in a jerky Dogme style, is deftly conveyed, but as soon as Kelly learns to calm her child, her problems become boilerplate suburban ennui: She frets that her husband (Josh Hopkins) thinks she’s ugly, and can’t get in with the WASPy moms who hang out at the local park. Kelly’s temporary anxieties are treated like an eternal burden, but the film comes to assume the permanence of Cal’s disabilities and his increasing attraction toward Kelly are one and the same. In short, Kelly needs to confirm that she can remain an individual while being a mother and a wife, but Cal just needs to grow up.
Kelly & Cal finds some comfort during the couple’s hang sessions, using clever blocking and the actors’ dynamic physical presences to emphasize the blend of hesitance and practiced nonchalance inherent in budding relationships. The weird imbalance between McGowan’s interest in the two characters, though, metastasizes throughout the film. It means to portray a romance between fellow free-thinkers, but Cal’s external life is nearly nonexistent. His brand of rebellion is signified by a tuxedo T-shirt worn to an art show, and the overwrought climax forces Weston into a series of tiresome, switchback mood swings. Kelly, meanwhile, suffers through trite interactions with nosy in-laws, distant husbands, incurious friends, and WASPy mothers, finding loneliness at every occasion. Somehow, Lewis manages to navigate this thicket of stereotypes and suggest the character Kelly should have been. She understands the thorniness of Kelly’s relationship with Cal in a way the film doesn’t (her facial expressions can traverse a pregnant mix of contentment, shame, excitement, and anxiety over the course of a few seconds), but her laconic diction still can’t elevate rote dialogue like “We all have to make compromises, Cal.”
Amy Lowe Starbin’s script saddles Kelly with so many hollow sentiments that her character becomes strangely impenetrable. Kelly’s musical past is flaunted in scenes where she introduces Cal to zines and some of her own ’90s college rock, but any evidence that Kelly has a wild or independent streak is reduced to her wardrobe of T-shirts and an episode of hair-dyeing. It’s mildly humiliating to watch Lewis silently, needlessly suffer through the film’s handful of antifeminist indignities, with Kelly submitting to a makeover proposed by her mother-in-law (Cybil Shepherd), and earnestly asking her husband if she disgusts him. Kelly is, always at once, two stereotypes at odds with one another: a mom who rocks and a stock rom-com heroine. Kelly & Cal is so concerned with being relatable that it can’t even consider being authentic.