Juliette Lewis plays a new mom not coping well with adulthood in "Kelly & Cal." Credit: IFC Films
'Kelly & Cal' Director: Jen McGowan Stars: Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
It was probably “Natural Born Killers” that did it, but Juliette Lewis has long been known for playing bigger-than-life loudmouths — characters who can’t control their impulses or the volume of their voice, who bowl over the quiet and meek with the indomitableness of their spirit. But Lewis is actually one of cinema’s best low-key performers. Her breakthrough was in “Cape Fear,” in which she played an introverted teen. Yet she wasn’t your typical introverted teen; she suggested a deep, roiling and still forming personality, using the most minute of facial expressions and body movements. She followed that up with being one of Woody Allen’s most precociously smart young love objects in “Husbands and Wives.” (Before that, of course, she was an amusingly wry Audrey Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”)
That Lewis — the one that handily nabbed a “Cape Fear” Oscar nomination before she was out of her 20s — is back in full force in “Kelly & Cal.” It sounds like a routine indie: Lewis plays Kelly, a new mom dealing not terribly well with early motherhood. Her husband (Josh Hopkins) has turned into a louse who would rather hit pornography than sleep with her. To her rescue comes Cal (Jonny Weston), a bored teen who introduces himself smoking a cigarette before telling her he likes to watch her undress through her window. He’s also in a wheelchair. They become mismatched buds right out of a parody of some dire Sundance entry — yet another unlikely duo that find solace together amidst the low-level miseries of suburbia.
And yet the writing is sharp and grouchy, and ditto, moreso, the performances. Weston is at once wiser beyond his years and just a dumb, precocious kid. But it’s Lewis’ movie, and this is essentially her vehicle — a movie to remind you of how filmmakers have largely left untapped her subtle gifts. Lewis’ Kelly is grumpy and essentially immature, complaining about the ugly realities of motherhood and her new, hellish suburban life. But insomnia has made her detached, aloof. She seems too exhausted to fight back, and even when her hangs with Cal have encouraged her to dig up relics from her punk group past, she’s still chill, sour and funny in how badly she’s handling adulthood.
There’s a tension in a film like “Kelly & Cal” about at which point the other shoe will drop — when what seemed like a personable twist on indie cliches will tumble into indie cliches. And “Kelly & Cal” falls hard. Right on cue, the hour mark brings forth a wave of melodramatic twists, complete with a scene that badly rips off one of the most famous scenes in “American Beauty.” It’s a shame how poorly “Kelly & Cal” goes to seed, but that’s not a reason to skip out on watching a great performance.