Are we forever fated to become our parents or is there a chance to carve out our own identities? This, the central question of Miranda July’s wonderful new film, Kajillionaire, takes an original, engaging route towards such a discovery. July, best known for her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, in which she also starred, applies her distinct quirkiness to her new film, but also infuses it with such empathy and warmth. The film, which at first gave me Napoleon Dynamite vibes, erupts into such an unironic, gimmick free thing of beauty by the end, that I may have invented a new emotion, the “tear gasp”.
Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio (the origins of which get explained in the film), the 26-year-old daughter to a pair of small-time Los Angeles scam artists, Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins). An inseparable trio, they engage in petty theft, exchanging gift certificates for money, and anything else they can desperately conjure up in order to maintain their meager existence. They live in a cruddy $500 a month office space owned by the neighboring Bubbles Inc. With such cheap rent comes one tiny inconvenience. Two or three times a day, pink bubbles from next door spill over their wall, forcing them to face this Sisyphean task with buckets at the ready. Although it serves as a metaphor for their scavenger existence, always facing uphill battles, July presents it as a simple truth in their lives. Whether staking out a post office to steal a parcel as if it were a military drill, or contorting their bodies to avoid being seen by their landlord, the family may seem odd, but their struggles feel universal.
Old Dolio wears her long stringy mane just like her mother’s and knows nothing about life outside of their bubble. She speaks in a deep croak not unlike Winger’s famous one, and dresses in loose-fitting, gender neutral clothing. It seems as if her whole life revolves around serving her parents’ needs. One day, however they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on an airplane during one of their more elaborate schemes, and their new friend wants in on the action. They plan to collect insurance money from the airline by claiming they lost Old Dolio’s luggage. Needless to say, the family didn’t think through how long it would take to collect the money, so they quickly need to conjure up another idea. Melanie seems suited for this life when she admits she initially lied to everyone about her profession. She may be the audience surrogate, getting answers to questions we might have, but she also has a bit of the con artist in her as well.
As Old Dolio gets to know Melanie better, it opens her up to the possibility of a life beyond her immediate family. When the quartet agree to go in together on a scam to bilk elderly people of their possessions, things take a turn. Their idea, to carry on as a family, pretending to eat dinner and fuss around the house as their victim listens from their deathbed, allows them to scope out various antiques they can steal and sell. This role-playing awakens something in Old Dolio as she sees a family unit she never really had. Theresa even admits later that if she wanted parents who showered their child with gifts, made pancakes, danced around, and spread joy, then she signed up for the wrong family. You see, Theresa and Robert are who they are, and they make no apologies for it. Old Dolio, in a sense, is trapped, feeling the need to always satisfy them. Melanie’s intrusion into their lives, however, gives Old Dolio pause about this situation. Melanie has an assured personality and a confident gait. She’s direct, unflappable, and always knows how to calmly get out of tough situations. As Old Dolio sees this, it makes her question everything.
Along with the bubbling foam, July uses earthquakes as a metaphor, with frequent tremors reminding us of the fragile situation. As I describe this, I understand the film may sound more bizarre than it actually is, because, in truth, it has a truly touching, heartfelt tone. Sam Lisenco’s lived in production design and Sebastian Winterø’s natural cinematography make their world so believable. Emile Mosseri, who did such a beautiful job with The Last Black Man In San Francisco, delivers a fascinating, understated score which seems attuned to this family’s insulated world. I also enjoyed a small supporting turn by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the scene stealer from Dolemite Is My Name, as a befuddled bystander to one of Old Dolio’s cons.
All of this enriches the revelatory performances by Wood and Rodriguez. Wood finds such depth in a character which could easily have just been played for laughs. As lame as it may sound, you really do feel like you’re watching a caterpillar transform into a butterfly as she discovers new sensations such as touching, hugging, kissing, and caring. Rodriguez sails through her role with an unerring sense of positivity. She senses the trap Old Dolio is in, and just takes charge. After her comedic stint on Jane The Virgin, Rodriguez shows she can slow things down and let her character breathe. She oozes charisma and intelligence here and more than holds her own next to her formidable cast mates.
Top of that list are Jenkins and Winger, who make a fantastic pair, lost in their own little worlds. Witness Winger’s reaction to airplane turbulence or Jenkins trying to feign normalcy when we know he’s always itching to con someone. One may think of them as flawed people or narcissists, but they undeniably know who they are and how they want to live. Since Winger is my favorite living actor, I only wish we could have had more of her in this film. Although essential to the story, I would have liked more time with the parents, especially when portrayed by two greats. They present such an interesting dichotomy as terrible parents who somehow love their child in unexpected ways. Their somewhat short screen time feels like a minor quibble in a film packed with such punch and originality. One scene, following a much bigger earthquake, astounded me with July’s bravery in choosing to cut to black over two characters forming an intimate bond.
Kajillionaire also surprised me with its queerness, first as a story of often overlooked outcasts and second as a beautiful exploration of a queer relationship. The less said about the latter, the better, as it gets revealed in such unpredictable ways. As it shows us the struggles of leaving the nest, it also shows us those first steps towards evolving and growing. That it does so without ever losing sight of the heist storyline, which plays out right until the very end, is a testament to July and her talented cast and crew. It proves that a movie can co-exist as an edgy comedy and as something more sentimental without compromising either.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Kajillionaire opens in select theaters on Friday September 25th.