Written & Directed by Miranda July
Miranda July began her career doing performance art videos, some of which I remember coming across online in the 2000s. Her first feature-length film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), was a beautiful little indie about strange people trying to find connections with each other. Six years later, she followed up with The Future, another indie about strange people that didn’t have the widespread popularity of her first film but is still a fantastic picture. And then it was nine years of no original works from July. Instead, she made many appearances acting in things like Portlandia or in the fantastic Madeline’s Madeline. July also published two books of short stories in that time. In 2018, she announced she would be writing and directing Kajillionaire, known only at the time as a “heist movie.” But with everything that Miranda July makes, it isn’t that simple.
Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is a woman in her late twenties living in Los Angeles with a warped sense of life thanks in part to her parents, Robert and Teresa (Richard Jenkins & Debra Winger), who live their life as one constant grift, stealing & engaging in terribly thought out scams that net them pocket change. They are three months behind on rent, and their landlord is demanding it within a couple of weeks. Old Dolio comes up with the idea of using airplane tickets that they won to travel to New York for a few hours and then come back, claiming luggage was lost. On the flight back to L.A., Old Dolio’s parents sit next to a charming Latina woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is very into the idea of being part of a heist crew. The more Melanie gets to know these people, the more sympathetic she feels for Old Dolio, who it becomes clear has not experienced affection her entire life.
It’s quite remarkable that Kajillionaire has come out during a time when human contact for many people is a memory until COVID-19 has a vaccine. For myself, married, I have that affection and connection, but I know quite a few people at my work who are single and live alone. For them, this has been an isolating experience, to say the least. Miranda July explores the idea of how essential human connection is from the moment of birth and the effect its absence can have on people as they try to grow and mature. July, as an artist, is also about making connections on an emotional level with an audience. Despite her art-house roots, her movies have always been incredibly accessible by all audiences because they focus on life’s personal and material struggles.
I think Kajillionaire is the most fully-formed work she has produced to date. This is a much more cohesive script, while her previous work could sometimes feel like connected short stories. This is a definite narrative with a great handle on its characters and their relationships. July understands how to balance exposition with character development, and so we never get flashbacks or long speeches that clue the audience in on what happened to Robert and Teresa to cause them to become these people devoid of love. There are some hints along the way, but the moment they both gave up and disconnected remains unknown.
The film hinges on its quartet performances, and leading them is Evan Rachel Wood. Her choices in playing Old Dolio are beautiful. There is a very apparent vulnerability from the first frame; she is so dependent on her parents and so accepting of their lack of love. To Old Dolio, that’s just how life is, so why should she expect more? Wood carries herself awkwardly; there is an evident lack of femininity in any conventional sense but definitely not masculinity, either. Old Dolio feels like a very gender non-binary person, uncomfortable living in the skins she’s told to be her parents and the culture around her. Thankfully, the movie allows her to be who she is even in the conclusion and never casts her gender presentation as part of the comedy or something to be mocked.
Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, two actors who have found their perfect rhythm in the last few years, are as frustrating as you’d want these characters to be. Their lives are dominated by an anti-social resentment of society. They aren’t interested in becoming wealthy; however, they spend every waking moment scheming and stealing to continue existing. The question never asked or answered is, “why?” They don’t have an interest in making a better life for their daughter, so their entire motivation comes from paranoia and the fear of death. We see that in Robert’s manic reactions to the slightest tremor, rambling about the big one and how the lucky will be crushed to death instantly. Their plane ride is dominated by fears of turbulence and the idea they will die at any moment. Existence clearly seems to be misery for these two, and so we have to wonder why they don’t just kill themselves if this is how they perceive life.
Gina Rodriguez has the most challenging role, in my opinion, because she has to be the warm light that pulls Old Dolio away from her parents. She begins the film by becoming what appears to be a surrogate daughter to Robert and Teresa, possessing all the charm that Old Dolio lacks. Of course, her parents never acknowledge their role in why their daughter feels so uncomfortable and withdrawn. Eventually, we learn Robert and Teresa aren’t interested in Melanie as a daughter figure and make themselves even more unlikable than they already are. Melanie begins to see how inhuman this lifestyle is and pulls Old Dolio away and into the light.
Kajillionaire is such a treat this year because we are in such a dearth of new good movies. So much of what the picture says is so relevant to right now, its critiques on a consumer-centered culture, how life is made miserable by the constant need to scrounge up scraps to survive, and how empty all our stuff ultimately is. This is a picture that doesn’t give up July’s aesthetic sensibilities and delivers a very human story I suspect all audiences can connect with.