The biggest takeaway from Kelly & Cal, a wonderfully honest and tender film about the bitter pill of adulthood, is Hollywood's criminal underuse of Juliette Lewis. The actress, shoehorned by her feral younger performances or her great unhinged sister act in last year's August: Osage County, is capable of marvelously grounded and subtle work. Here she plays Kelly, a weary new mother dropped into manicured suburbia. She befriends a teenage neighbor, Cal, played by the equally impressive Jonny Weston (Chasing Mavericks), who is angrily confined to a wheelchair because of a recent spinal injury. They become each other's lifelines in a world they believe has betrayed their forgotten, better selves.
In her feature debut, director Jen McGowan displays the unhurried, naturalistic instincts of Nicole Holofcener or Alexander Payne. Her portrait of suburbia is sterile without being sneering, and she finds bursts of humor and pathos in quiet moments. Amy Lowe Starbin's unsentimental script grants depth to her supporting characters, too. Kelly's husband (Cougar Town's Josh Hopkins) is a tired man with an idling sex drive who traded his artistic dreams for the upwardly mobile world of advertising, while her hovering mother-in-law (welcome surprise Cybill Shepherd) senses unrest but can offer only a lasagna casserole as comfort.
But it's Lewis who makes a movie that easily could have been mawkish sing. ''I wasn't always a suburban housewife,'' she tells Cal in an early attempt to impress the already besotted boy. ''I was once young and wild.'' She pulls old combat boots out of her closet and plays cassettes from her riot-grrrl band days (original songs written and performed by the musician-actress). Even as their friendship careens toward its inevitable crash, climaxing in a vital and wistful dance number, Kelly's vulnerable goodness and loyalty to her family linger on. Lewis is a star in her prime, and more smart directors should put her to work. (Also on iTunes and VOD) A