09/03/2014 06:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Kelly and Cal': A Fresh Look at Disabilities in Film

It has been a while since a true indie grabbed my attention like Kelly and Cal which opens in theaters this week and is playing tonight to a sold out audience at The JCC in Manhattan. Juliet Lewis captures a forgotten tone with her portrayal of Kelly, a former rocker, turned new suburban mom. She is perfectly cast, as someone who was the symbol of young rebels in the 90's, and is now all grown up - or so you would think. The solid writing and great performances keep your attention throughout, but we selected this film for reasons beyond the obvious. What truly drives this film is its fascinating approach to disability.


Kelly meets a teenager, Cal, who after an accident feels confined to a wheelchair. Both feeling like outcasts in their new worlds, they make a connection. Despite not being an actor with a visible disability, Jonny Weston does a great job playing Cal. His character transcends the classic portrayal of paraplegics that beg for pity, and instead presents a complex personality, that highlights his humanity and his teenaged angst before his disability.

But what is really interesting about the film is actually Kelly's incapacity. Kelly is fighting a debilitating condition, which is often overlooked, yet affects many Americans, known as "being a new mom." This is actually represented in a form of postpartum depression which affects 80% of new mothers. Classically, we picture postpartum depression as mothers feeling suicidal or unable to care for their child. But the more common presentation of this disorder is much more subtle.

As a new parent, I was consumed by the joy of having a baby. Very few appropriately warned me of the hardships parenthood can bring. Yes, I was told to "sleep now, because you will never sleep again," and some said the first few months are tough. But becoming a parent brings along a major existential crisis.

Kelly is having a tough time with her newborn, but more so, she is having trouble assuming the role of a mother. She is not just affected by her hormones and lack of sleep, but also by the devastating change in her life. She has gone from being a free person, someone who lived on the wild side, to someone who has to take care of a crying baby, be responsible, and live in the suburbs so she can be closer to her mother-in-law (played by another rebel-turned-mom - Cybil Sheppard.)

As New York parents have the ability to choose to have children at later ages than ever, the notion of losing your independence when becoming a parent is becoming more prominent. People with very full lives, who build careers, who have been untied down for decades, are suddenly given the ultimate commitment and responsibility that is for a lifetime. This is very unnatural for a generation with such a short attention span. You can't just turn the channel on a child. You can't simply multitask good parenting. It requires a lot of dedication.

The beauty of Kelly and Cal is in the connection they make and the comparison between their conditions. Both Kelly and Cal feel like birds who had their wings clipped. Kal is obviously more upfront about this, as his condition is more visible. But making this comparison allows a greater understanding of disability and humanizes through the empathy one can feel from their own state of isolation and inability. Most people may not know what it is like to become a paraplegic, but most do know what it is like to feel frustrated and stuck, the way Kelly does.

Kelly sees beyond the wheelchair and connects to the person. They bond due to their frustrations, but are not defined by them. Seeing beyond the disability and experiencing all the complexities that people have is what ReelAbilties: NY Disabilities Film Festival is all about. Like Kelly and Cal, we seek out films that are first and foremost good films, and then also present a progressive approach to the portrayal of disability, in order to share the humanity that is beyond the disability. Kelly and Cal shows how close we all really are, if we put down our guards and prejudices.