There are a lot of things Kelly & Cal could have been. It could have been a female version of the tried and true overgrown manchild fad, with Juliette Lewis playing a much prettier Seth Rogen (sorry, Seth). It could have been a more sexually charged Harold and Maude. It could have been a disturbing story of a woman caught in a spiral of devastating life choices. It gets close to that third one there, but ultimately the movie refuses to commit to actually being anything, and ends up a mess of noncommittal blandness.
Juliette Lewis plays Kelly, an ex-Riot Grrl-turned-suburban housewife. She passes her days in a post-partem void, with a workaholic husband and an infant she’s convinced hates her, occasionally trying to make connections in a town where friendships with other moms require online applications and mommy group membership fees. Aside from the Alpha Beta Moms and her overbearing inlaws, the only other person Kelly has any contact with is the teenaged Cal (Jonny Weston), who feels that a good opening conversation topic is how much he admires her breasts. She rightfully tells him to f*ck straight off, but regrets it when, upon his exit, she sees he’s confined to a wheelchair. Regretting her bluntness (as if what he said was suddenly appropriate, at least as viewed through her guilt veil), she befriends him, finding they have if not actual things in common, at least a good repartee. Or, rather, she has a decent repartee, he seems unable to do anything but give her a clumsy, hard eye f*cking whenever they’re in the same room. And this is where this movie gets weird. There’s a Harold and Maude-esque set up, with an unlikely bond developing between these two characters. But for any outside viewer, it’s clear that the only bonding Cal has an interest in is the bathing suit parts kind. And the fact that Kelly, ostensibly the adult in this pairing, can’t see that, or just chooses to ignore it in order to maintain a one-sided friendship, is creepy at best and dangerous at worst. Because Cal is not only a child; he is fresh off his accident, newly handicapped, and a perfect storm of emotional fragility and teenage hornbone. If the genders in this pair were switched, we would not hesitate to call the older man a total f*cking scumbag who we hope ends the movie in prison. Seeing the role swapped to a woman in this situation is no less scummy.
The movie has the opportunity to explore a lot of really complex issues: postpartum depression, losing yourself in the pre-laid path of adulthood, unlikely connections, unexpected tragedy, growing up, growing apart… But the movie never commits to any of them. It exists only on a superficial level, dealing exclusively in clichés. Kelly actually says to Cal early in their friendship, “I wasn’t always a suburban housewife. I was young and wild once.” That line does not stand apart, it perfectly encapsulates the level of subtlety we’re dealing with here: absolutely none. And as such, taking on any deeper issues (like a bond between a grown woman and a teenage boy), can only exist on a superficial level, leading to a lot of creepiness, which is also somehow simultaneously really boring. None of these characters can see beyond their own noses, and as such have nothing to offer themselves, each other, or an audience. What we’re given is a series of quirky and/or emotionally cliché scenes set up in a linear sequence. In your frustrations, you are more likely to connect with the absent husband, the hilariously maddening mother- and sister-in-law, or even the newborn, who somehow manages to disappear entirely from the plot for about a full third of the movie. You are sure not to find any meaning in Kelly or Cal, and definitely not in the underformed combination of Kelly AND Cal.
Vivian Kane tried to make it clear: You should just watch Harold and Maude instead.