What if you didn’t bond with your baby right away? What if after giving birth, your life changes in ways you’re not ready to accept? The motherhood debate has long been a sensitive topic, one which is explored with tact and honesty in Kelly & Cal. It premiered this year at SXSW, a fitting place to unveil this independent film that focuses on a midlife crisis told through a female perspective. There, the film received the Gamechanger Award, which honors women filmmakers — a big boost to director Jen McGowan and first-time screenplay writer Amy Lowe Starbin. By focusing on middle-aged women as a multifaceted, dare I say, complex people, McGowan and Starbin are truly game-changers. Some of the issues they delve into include the search for personal identity as life gets complicated with motherhood and the struggles within relationships that reach a level of maturity.
Kelly & Cal opens with an exhausted Kelly (Juliette Lewis), six weeks after having her first child. When she visits her doctor, Kelly seems detached and even a little scared. Her doctor tells her she is healing and that she is ready to engage in sexual activity again. Kelly looks less than thrilled and comes back home to her newborn and husband Josh (Josh Hopkins), who quickly hands off the baby. She tells him about the news, and he responds by turning on the TV. The mood at home is far from romantic not only with a blaring TV and crying baby but also a new neighborhood that creates a widening gap between husband and wife.
Indeed, it’s the old tale of suburbia. With her husband gone most of the day at work, Kelly looks for an outlet to cope with her perpetually bawling baby but has a hard time fitting into the neighborhood. She goes out for long, lonely walks with her newborn. During one such walk she encounters a group of happy mommies. After a brief exchange of polite introductions, the queen bee mom informs her that their group has an application to join with dues for activities and adds at the end: “but everyone is welcome.”
Kelly is out of her element, for she was hip once, which she soon decides to reveal to a much younger, frank-talking, wheelchair-bound neighbor, Cal (Jonny Weston). She impresses him with a cassette tape and a story of an earlier life as the former bassist for a riot grrrl band called Wetnap, which went nowhere beyond existing in the ’90s zeitgeist. The embittered angsty teen becomes smitten, the aura of which is not lost on Kelly. Back to reality: adding to her woes, Kelly’s in-laws make it clear that they think she is seriously in need of a motherhood intervention. Cybil Shepard plays her passive-aggressive mother-in-law who sees Kelly adrift and tackles her as a project, providing her with babysitting, a makeover and even cooking. The well-intentioned mother-in-law only succeeds at making Kelly feel more awkward about her new role.
But then there’s 17-year-old Cal, a neighbor who not only listens to Kelly but also finds her attractive. For Kelly, the attention — though unwanted — is most welcomed. Weston gives an earnest delivery as a teenager trying to find his footing after losing the ability to walk and some of his motor skills in an accident. During his first interaction with Kelly it becomes apparent that both are running away from their current circumstances. Their encounter comes as Kelly sits in her backyard smoking while her infant cries, Cal asking for a smoke:
Your kid is crying, Kelly.
I know. The whole fucking neighborhood can hear him cry.
So, you’re just gonna let him cry it out?
Cry it out? It’s called ferberizing. When they cry.
Right, I think I heard of ferberizing.
I’m sure you have.
No, I’m not kidding.
You have great tits.
This little junior in there should be more grateful.
Though the exchange might seem shocking; it is the first bit of attention they both get. Their relationship ensues as both get something that they crave from the other, something lacking in their lives. The collaboration between McGowan and Starbin successfully maintains a female point of view on the hardships of motherhood and maintaining relationships with the in-laws. Although there are some sincere moments of vulnerability portrayed onscreen thanks to some great acting by Lewis, who appears subdued and frail, by the film’s mid-point the dialogue starts to lose its punch and wanders off to commonplace, predictable areas of over-sincerity of good intentions. For instance, Kelly reaches out to Cal after she rejects him and offers him a piece of wisdom, “You cannot let your chair define you.” Although adventurous, Starbin easily dials back the dynamic between Kelly and Cal, which gets resolved not without conflict but neither in any original way. While the ideas behind the film are impactful, the delivery and execution become less so, as the film lumbers toward its finale. One feels like there was a compromise somewhere between the beginning of the film and the unraveling of the relationship between Kelly and Cal and the subsequent mending of affairs between Kelly and her husband, Josh.
An enjoyable film nonetheless, Kelly & Cal comes from a sincere place that does not forget its sense of humor while tackling the seriously complex issue of growing up in adulthood. Hopefully it marks the occasion of many more films featuring middle-aged women as leads with honest, human flaws.
Kelly & Cal runs 104 minutes and it is not rated (but there is language and nudity). The film opens in South Florida on Oct. 3 at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables and Oct. 17 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood. It is also on demand. But see it in a local theater! Check listings outside of South Florida, visit here.