Wednesday, October 1, 2014

'Kelly & Cal' (2014) directed by Jen McGowan [LFF 2014]

I've got respect for a film that equates having a baby to suffering lower body paralysis.  Kelly & Cal mines the fertile soil of suburbia-as-hell, a land of conformity where ambition goes to die.  This is a nightmare of endless identical houses, populated by endless identical pie-baking women, suffering endless identical boredom.  This is the land of devilled eggs, a glass of wine with lunch, wash the windows, pastel shades on everything brush the path, walk the dog, paint the fence, blow your brains out in a painkiller induced stupor.

Kelly & Cal follows two souls that despise this world but can't escape it.  Kelly (Juliette Lewis) was a riot grrl bassist, now newly married with a 2 month old baby.  Her life has changed in oh so many ways, and her independence seems to vanish in the haze.  Her baby shackles her to a monotonous routine and with her husband working long hours, her only company are her repulsively chipper in-laws.  Her memories of saying "fuck you" to the man are being smothered in layers of nappies and talcum powder, her Bratmobile t-shirts faded and worn, future dishcloths.  The life is being crushed from her, but like Canute ordering back the sea, there's not much she can do about it.

Enter Cal (Jonny Weston).  He's a vaguely punky disabled teenager that lives in his parent's shed.  Prone to romantic flights of fancy, he foolishly scaled a water tower to paint a mural declaring his love for his girlfriend Bailey.  He got as far as writing "Bail" before he did just that, splatting into the ground and ending up in a wheelchair with damaged motor skills. He's a disillusioned, angry young man; frustrated at his lack of independence, loss of artistic skills and that his friends have abandoned him.

The two quickly hit it off.  Kelly feels like her old punk rock self when they're hanging out, and appreciates the attention he gives her as a person and not as a mother or wife.  Cal is grateful that Kelly looks him in the eyes when she speaks to him and, starved of female company, finds her presence intoxicatingly erotic.  The two make an odd couple, and initially bring out the best in each other.  Then their relationship begins to curdle; Cal grows increasingly obsessed with Kelly and Kelly is riddled with guilt at betraying her husband and child.  Cue drama.

Kelly & Cal is at its best when exploring suburban family life as bondage.  Watching Kelly fight against the destruction of her punk rock sensibilities at the hands of loose pastel clothing, chintzy baby toys and home-made lasagne is real Flowers For Algernon material. Initially, Juliette Lewis plays her with a cynical, beaten down flatness, as if she's resigned herself to her fate. As she spends more time with Cal the 'old' Kelly shines through. She dyes her hair aqua-blue (though this is represented by a rather unconvincing wig), begins wearing her old riot grrl gear and breaks out her old zines and mix tapes.

We desperately want to see more of this Kelly and so her in-laws attempts to turn her into a Stepford Wife are genuinely horrifying.  Particularly scary is the appearance of an emergency makeover woman who appears from nowhere brandishing a rack of matronly soccer-mom outfits and a toothy, shark-like grin.  During all this Kelly reminds me of some punkish women I'm friends with, giving things an emotional whomp to the heart.

She looks cool, but as far as screen wigs go this ain't a convincing one.
Unfortunately the plight of Cal is somewhat less compelling.  His struggle to come to terms with his disability is very well trodden dramatic territory and resolves with few surprises. Not helping matters is that Jonny Weston doesn't quite have the dramatic chops to keep up with Juliette Lewis.  His anger and lust is keenly conveyed, yet when things dramatically down a few notches he can't quite find Cal's sensitive side.  This is far from ruinous, but it creates a weird dramatic imbalance between Kelly's neuroses and Cal's disability - namely that being a wife and mother comes off as worse than being paralysed.

So, from humble, enjoyable beginnings we soon get hints of melodrama.  You pray the story isn't going to tip over into cliche. It does.  As we go through set pieces like breaking into a school, a climactic art fair or a night-time hunt for a missing, depressed Cal, we miss the small scale realism of these characters simply bouncing off each other in interesting ways. Those early scenes are the moments of real strength, screenwriter Amy Lowe Starbin demonstrating a real knack for showing the shifting relationships between people over time. 

There's an odd melancholy at the core of Kelly & Cal.  Going back in time is impossible; Kelly's punk rock rebellion is behind her and nothing is going to bring it back.  Meanwhile the future blares towards you like a runaway train, unavoidable and growing closer by the second.  What we see here is the painful synthesis as Kelly reconciles the two, finding ways to be honour her past while confronting the realities of her future.

Kelly & Cal works as small-scale, touching slice of indie drama with a quietly female-centric sensibility.  Far from essential, but well worth a watch.


Kelly & Cal is released 9th October 2014

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