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NPR Arts & Life

'Kelly And Cal' Alters A Familiar Premise But Walks A Worn Path

About halfway through Kelly & Cal, a question arises about why women mature faster than men. The premise is hardly debated, but Kelly (Juliette Lewis), who is struggling with growing up herself after moving to the suburbs and having a son, Jackson, with her husband, Josh (Josh Hopkins), is not so certain that it's a positive trait in any case: "Growing up is actually really painful," she says by way of explanation, "and women have a stronger threshold for pain."

That, perhaps, is one reason why the now common story of immature adults learning to act their age tends to feature men like Seth Rogen, Jason Segel or, just recently in Are You Here, Owen Wilson. (That movies about men outnumber movies about women generally is, of course, another reason.) The story of the stable, maternal woman taming the juvenile man is the stereotype that director Jen McGowan and writer Amy Lowe Starbin try to overturn in Kelly & Cal. But the film is mostly proof that changing the gender and details in a premise doesn't do much good if the presentation is conventional in nearly every other way.

As the movie begins, Kelly is two months into motherhood. Once the bassist in a riot grrrl band, she now suffers distress at Jackson's incessant crying, disappointment at her nonexistent sex life with Josh, and disgust at her suburban community, where other mothers bond by meeting in the Glendale Park Mothers Group — "There's an application form and membership fee," one of the members tells Kelly with a fake smile, "but everyone's welcome to join!"

The fundamental problem, though, is not parenthood or the new neighborhood but aging: At a dinner with friends, Kelly is distressed to find that they too have turned into old bores, obsessed only with their dogs and counting calories.

Enter Cal (Jonny Weston), Kelly's teenage and newly wheelchair-using neighbor, who introduces himself to Kelly by promptly complimenting her breasts. Kelly's disgust soon gives way to friendship when she realizes that Cal is the only person around her who condones and even expects her to return to her youthful wild ways. When she spontaneously dyes her hair turquoise, he's the one who tells her it looks sexy.

Meanwhile, at home, Kelly gets harangued daily by Josh's imposing and uptight family. With their exaggerated overbearing behavior, Kelly's mother-in-law Bev (Cybill Shepherd) and sister-in-law Julie (Lucy Owen) are probably the most consistently amusing characters in the film: When Bev tells Kelly to "go out and do something nice for yourself," Julie suggests: "Like see a therapist!" That only drives Kelly closer to Cal, though, and with time, of course, their friendship begins shifting into something more romantic.

As Cal, Weston performs with the same sort of impassioned emotional candor that Aaron Paul brought to Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. There's hardly the same painful premonition of tragedy in Cal as in Jesse, though. That's partly because he and Kelly converse largely in clichés — "You can't just let that chair be the only thing that defines you," Kelly yells at one point — so our connection to them remains distant and generic.

But Kelly & Cal's more pronounced shortcoming is that it never seriously relates to its protagonists' problems. It never considers whether Cal's depression after losing the use of his legs could be insurmountable, or whether it could be acceptable for Kelly to feel that settling down and having kids was a mistake. It's pleasant, or often just necessary, to give yourself over to a movie that guarantees a positive outcome, which Kelly & Cal certainly does. But it's difficult to do so when the film never bothers to respect the validity of its characters' struggles in the first place.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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