When I watch a new movie, I sprawl my notebook open across my lap to keep track of my favorite scenes, attention-grabbing quotes, and my own feelings. But when I sat down to watch Miranda July’s new movie “Kajillionaire,” I barely touched my notebook because I was sucked in by every second of this film. At every turn, “Kajillionaire” is unusual and quirky, and it unapologetically pulls you along for an unpredictable ride.
As soon as the film starts, we’re treated to the eccentricity that has come to define July’s work. Watching from a distance, we see the protagonists — parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) with daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) — darting through a Los Angeles post office. It’s a scene that plays out more like an interpretive dance; Robert and Theresa throw up hand signals, clearly motioning to someone, before we see Old Dolio jump over the wall and into the building.
It’s the perfect way to begin a film that never seems to let you know where it’s going. The movie follows the Dynes– Robert, Theresa, and Old Dolio — a odd family of con artists — as they try to survive. They live in the basement of some sort of suds factory, wiping pink, soapy bubbles off their wall as it seeps in from their ceiling.
When they’re accosted by their landlord for not having paid rent for three months, the family has to find a way to scrounge together $1,500 — and fast.
That’s where Melanie, an optometrist’s assistant played by Gina Rodriguez, comes in. After Old Dolio concocts a scam to collect insurance — over $1,500 worth — by claiming lost baggage, the family agrees to fly one way and then immediately back. On the plane, however, they meet Melanie, a young working woman in her 20s. Both Robert and Theresa find her charming and trustworthy, and she’s invited to join their ranks. “My favorite movies are the ‘Ocean 11’ movies,” Melanie tells them. “This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve been wanting.” But what none of them know — even Melanie — is that things are about to change.
Rodriguez seems to do a lot of the heavy-lifting when it comes to the actual changes in the family dynamic, focusing her efforts on trying to understand Robert and Theresa. “They are real characters — super unique,” Melanie says to Old Dolio once she agrees to join the family. “But you vouch for them, right?” Around the Dynes, Melanie is peppy, out-going, and willing to get a foot into the door of conning. But the family is resistant, off-grid, and each living in their own bubble (upon meeting them, Melanie asks if they’re Amish because they avoid technology). Melanie’s existence, along with her attempts to get Old Dolio to ask for what she deserves, forces them to pay attention to the child they had emotionally left to grow up alone.
In contrast to Melanie’s constant outward progress, Old Dolio spends most of the film internalizing. But this introspection is where Wood shines in her role, revealing that the quirkiness of Old Dolio — from her seemingly never-cut curtain of hair to the deep, curt way she speaks — is less about how she’s acting and more about how she’s reacting. Her wounds coldly build up, and the way that she has been able to exist in this world is to create a wall, a shield, a set of armor. After taking a job reporting to a court-ordered parenting class for a woman who would rather go on a date, Old Dolio listens to the teacher speak softly and affectionately about child-rearing, and we can see the pain on her face grow over the course of the scene. She wants that, but as things are, she’ll never get it.
The good news for Old Dolio, though, is that achieving that connection and love isn’t impossible for her. In fact, it’s Melanie that steps up to prove it. The movie is ultimately about the connection between two women floundering in their 20s, trying to move on from codependency and find a sense of stability — and love — in each other. For Old Dolio, her life is constantly being jostled by emotionally distant parents. For Melanie, it’s about trying to get away from a too emotionally present mom, who video calls multiple times a day and buys everything in pairs so she can send one to her daughter. The two find solace in each other quickly. As the story progresses, Melanie and Old Dolio grow closer, each learning to give and take love in a healthy way.
During the film’s climax, after receiving the insurance check from their baggage scam, Old Dolio refuses to hand it over to her parents. After almost two weeks of being told she does deserve love and affection, Old Dolio finally asks for it, demanding that tenderness from her parents in exchange for the money. “We don’t make pancakes, or wrap up little birthday presents, or call you sweetheart or baby, or do a little dance,” Theresa tells her daughter, refusing to give that love to her. In one last-ditch, desperate attempt, Old Dolio pleads with them, telling Theresa that if she calls her “hun,” she’ll hand over the check.
But it’s not Theresa who accepts. “I’ll call you ‘hun,’” Melanie says instead, quite literally stepping over Theresa and Robert to grab Old Dolio’s hand as they make a run for the door together. “For $1,575. I’ll call you ‘hun.’”
Their love builds in small, intimate moments. Old Dolio accidentally dents one of Melanie’s press-on nails, and rather than apologizing, she gently takes the other woman’s hand and picks off the nails one-by-one — calmly, carefully, intimately. But once they have accepted their love for each other, it’s overt and loud. After they run out together, hand in hand, Old Dolio moves in with Melanie, but her parents try to win her back in ways they think she’ll appreciate, like sending gifts to make up for all the birthdays they missed. Instead of giving in, the couple return the presents at the store, and while there, they kiss. It’s public. It’s a clear moment of July saying they had finally found that deep connection they both craved.
Thanks to its constant quirks, “Kajillionaire” is somehow both fast-moving and slow-going at the same time. Set against the background of a real, modern world where the Dynes seem to be the only odd ones out thanks to their drab, conservative clothing; their strange affinity for living in the shadows; and their constant need to be scamming. When Melanie steps into the picture, then, they’re letting in someone that seems offbeat from their view because of how “normal” she is: she dresses like a modern millennial, has a normal job, and does normal things like travel or hang out in her apartment. And with that injection comes a weird dichotomy of what is acceptable and what isn’t, what is normal and what isn’t, and what Old Dolio knows she deserves and what she isn’t given.
Underlined by fantastic performances all around, July crafts a film that’s purpose is obvious but shrouded in a sense of unpredictability and quirkiness that mirrors life itself. Jenkins’ turn as Robert doesn’t hold back, sliding from condescension and contempt to a grandiose master manipulator at the drop of a hat. Winger’s matriarchal figure is just as sure in herself, moving through life with purposeful destruction and a flippant attitude toward things that do not affect her (and even some that do). And Rodriguez shines as Melanie, injecting a sense of love into the otherwise cold world of the Dynes that feels authentic and supported by passion, rather than by selfish desires. But as anyone who watches the film can attest, it’s Wood who carries it with her performance, expressing a neutrality that reads as removed pain and crafting a character that we can all find at least a bit of ourselves in.
“Kajillionaire” is a movie that begs you to simply strap in for the ride — one that transitions from love to ruthlessness in the blink of an eye. Like a contract full of legal jargon, it’s easy to feel bogged down in the details, but July manages to slip in moments of real, heartfelt insight between the lines. It’s a balancing act, and one the writer-director crafts so well. It reminds us that amongst the chaos of life and in the moments where we feel disconnected from those closest to us (and sometimes even ourselves), we do deserve love, regardless of what we’ve been told.