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'Kelly & Cal' review: Mom and teen bond

Juliette Lewis plays a mom in

Juliette Lewis plays a mom in "Kelly & Cal." Credit: IFC Films

Fine lines are walked and sometimes crossed in "Kelly & Cal," Jen McGowan's modest but unsettling drama about a middle-aged woman who strikes up a troubling friendship with a teenage boy. Added layers of complexity -- she's a former punk-rock musician, he's in a wheelchair -- make the story offbeat and unpredictable. Much like its characters, however, the movie seems a little unsure about what it's doing.

Juliette Lewis plays Kelly, mother to a squawky newborn and wife to a loving but inattentive husband, Josh (Josh Hopkins). Recently transplanted to the suburbs (filming locations include Port Washington, Manhasset and Great Neck), Kelly feels stifled by her in-laws (Cybill Shepherd plays Josh's mother) and shunned by the local mommy-group. When a 17-year-old boy makes a saucy comment about her breast-feeding prowess, Kelly is too lonely to be altogether offended.

The boy is Cal, a once-athletic teen now grappling with life in a wheelchair. Played by a very good Jonny Weston, Cal is a major over-compensator -- cocky, mouthy, aggressive -- but also transparently angry and scared. Something about him rekindles Kelly's teen spirit, and before long she's dying her hair blue, defacing the local school and chugging beers in the gym with a boy in close proximity.

Kelly may not be a stretch for Lewis, a 41-year-old actress who once fronted a rock band called The Licks. (Kelly's old band was called Wet Nap.) There's always been something punkish, or at least "alt," about Lewis, whose sneering smile and cynical intelligence made her so memorable in edgy films like "Natural Born Killers." Here, though, she's playing a sadder, more vulnerable character. You can see rebellious girl Kelly once was, and the fallible woman she's become.

Written by Amy Lowe Starbin, "Kelly & Cal" follows several themes -- an unconventional friendship, social taboos, the mysteries of the human psyche -- without wrestling any of them to a satisfying conclusion, but it's engaging and compelling throughout. The film's Roslyn-based producer, Mandy Tagger Brockey, will speak at a screening Friday night at 7.

PLOT A suburban mom and a handicapped boy form a friendship that verges on something more.

UNRATED

CAST Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston, Cybill Shepherd.

LENGTH 1:49.

BOTTOM LINE An offbeat drama with a pervasive sense of unease. Compelling, if slightly inconclusive.

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