Nowadays coming-of-age movies about twenty-to-thirty-somethings outnumber movies about actual teenagers. At first, these stories were the domain of the Apatovian slacker or the Ferrellian man-child, engaging in broad-comedy antics with some of lesson-learning. Over the past decade, the subgenre has expanded to encompass women, in movies like Frances Ha or Bridesmaids. As disparate as they can be, these movies usually frame these characters as independently self-sabotaging; Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire looks at a similar character through the cracked lens of nontraditional parenting.
Late in the movie, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) surveys eighteen years’ worth of previously missed birthday presents. Her more traditionally adjusted friend Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) helps her clarify a question that’s been hanging over the movie for over an hour: Old Dolio is 26, not 18. We suspect some kind of age discrepancy (in general, if not the specifics) throughout the film, because Evan Rachel Wood was playing teenagers over a decade ago. But it can’t be taken for granted, because Old Dolio lives under the thumb of her parents in ways most closely associated with children, or possibly caregivers of the elderly.
The trouble is Old Dolio is not a child in body or mind – not exactly – and her parents are not infirm. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) are able-bodied enough to maintain their lifestyle, which involves a series of extremely low-level scams. All expenses and meager gains are divided equally between the trio, with Old Dolio treated as a partner in all ways except the ones that would grant her more autonomy. Her odd name, for example, was not her choosing, but the result of her parents attempting to work an angle. When Melanie enters the family’s life and becomes embroiled in their schemes, Old Dolio feels threatened by an outside daughter figure, then tantalized by the idea of living a life more like Melanie’s, which is not perfect by any means, but has actual normalcy.
Some may read Kajillionaire as a celebration of a middle-class existence: paying for groceries, receiving birthday presents, and working regular unfulfilling jobs are all portrayed as preferable to a life outside the system. But July hasn’t really made a class commentary; it’s more of a meditation on the play-acting involved in assuming familial roles. As a dutiful daughter, Old Dolio has assumed a part that involves nicking packages from post office boxes, filing false insurance claims, and living by the beeps of her watch alarm. Her parents have supposedly placed her in this position to prepare her for adult life, but of course they’ve only prepared her for their adult lives. It’s an extreme and more intentional version of what so many parents unintentionally accomplish: they turn their kids into their understudies, a process somehow both monstrous and natural all at once.
In Old Dolio’s case, tender feelings are not part of the adult life for which she prepared; she’s resourceful, yet starving. Melanie offers some casual equivalent of normal interaction, which Old Dolio parlays into a bit of role-play. When she stays over at Melanie’s house, Melanie tucks her into bed. When Old Dolio receives that series of gifts from her parents, it’s an attempt at appeasement, a counteroffer after their daughter has tasted a normal life and may finally opt out of her stilted one.
The struggle to paint a normal, relatable family portrait also informs Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, albeit on a more abstract level. The movie is nominally about a young man (Jesse Plemons) taking his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) to visit his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette). The details of the characters shift through a long car ride, a meal, and a long return trip. This happens verbally and visually: names, jobs, ages all gradually become malleable. Characters take credit for thoughts, artwork, and even directly quote from real-life figures with only hints of attribution.
In other words, the movie operates under dream logic. Its eventual solution is straightforward, without being directly stated: These people all exist in the mind of a lonely janitor seen repeatedly throughout the movie, reflecting on his life and fantasizing about the personal connections he doesn’t really have. This explains the tinkered details and the pervasive feeling that something isn’t quite right. I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Kajillionaire both cover romantic relationships and family, and each favors one over the other: Kaufman puts the uneasy, fractured romance in the front, while July favors the particulars of a family that opts out of normal family activities.
But Thewlis and Collette’s performances in Ending Things are too vivid to discount, just as Rodriguez and Wood keep their connection percolating in the background of Kajillionaire. During a hilariously discomfiting dinner scene, the Plemons character squirms with embarrassment as his mother dotes on him and reveals bits of his childhood. Even in this fusion of fantasy and memory, the janitor seems aware of what parents are “supposed” to do, and doesn’t edit out the frustration or discomfort.
The characters aren’t just role-playing. Their existence is a form of role-playing, with shifting composite figures dominating their real-life equivalents. After dinner, the parent characters morph into elderly versions of themselves, and Plemons dotes on them. What else can he do? It’s at once touching and onerous because the movie is also keyed into the Buckley character’s point of view, which includes awareness of the strange changes around her, and an eagerness to leave.
A key scene from Kajillionaire also engages in a kind of advanced age preview. The family and Melanie visit a dying old man’s home, hoping to find the resources to commit check fraud, and the old man doesn’t really protest when strangers push into his home. Rather, he craves the ambient noise of family interaction, overheard from the next room as he lies bedridden. So the group improvises and pantomimes conversation, an experience that clearly resonates with Old Dolio more strongly than her parents. As in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, childhood and adulthood fold over each other with a tinge of regret. None of these modes exactly end, any more than teenagers’ old lives stop on a dime when they become legal adults.
The slipperiness of time has been on display in July and Kaufman’s past work, from the encompassing Synecdoche, New York to the temporal contortions of The Future. Here they use their natural inclinations toward the surreal, warping and extending post-adolescent coming-of-age that’s become so common in American movies. The solipsism that some might read into the likes of Bridesmaids or Knocked Up is present in Kaufman and July’s past work, and they treat it with sensitivity. Unlike, say, Step Brothers, these movies aren’t satirizing belated-maturity narratives or the accompanying real-life rituals. Rather than dismissing this process as evidence of a larger decline, they extend its boundaries further. The mind that constructs most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things is long past youth, and even Old Dolio is an unusual combination of arrested development and old-age signifiers.
Both movies also stretch gracefully to include parents, who usually labor in these stories as enablers, antagonists, or figures of absence. When you become a parent, it can take a long time to shake that feeling of faking it, of play-acting through an assigned role. Acquiescing to “normal” parent-child dynamics is one con that the parents in Kajillionaire try their best to avoid, though Old Dolio’s separation forces their hand, giving the movie a surprising emotional kick. The parental figures in Ending Things perform closure closer to expectations because they’re personified cocktails of those expectations and, presumably, fractured memories.
In both films, the facsimile of the actual parenthood does not rebuke authority. It acknowledges both their psychological needs and their precarious emotional state. July and Kaufman understand the common complaint about the younger generation – that they lack maturity – is mostly bullshit. The messy, uncertain sprawl of growing up spares no one.