When you think about it, movie characters have a limited spectrum of behavior. They act according to what the plot and genre require of them, to the point where eccentricity and freedom never seem like actual possibilities. That is even more true in television, a medium where characters make absurd decisions to advance the story. Miranda July does not operate with such parameters, imbuing her characters with freedoms you cannot find anywhere else. Her latest film Kajillionare is like that, and its sense of liberation hides a story that is eminently relatable.
The Dyne family are off-putting in a way that is hard to articulate. They mutter to themselves and are oblivious to social cues, which is alarming since they are petty thieves. Their scams involve twenty dollars here, another twenty there, so they are always desperate for more. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) suffer from shared mental illness, or the kind of co-dependency that keeps them from a fulfilling life. Their tragedy is they transferred this outlook onto their adult daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), and she never had the choice for anything else. Yes, Old Dolio is a strange name for anyone, and when the film reveals its etymology, it suggests deep problems with these parents.
On a flight from New York to Los Angeles, the Dynes befriend Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a friendly motor mouth who takes them at face value. Together they form the most unlikely group of criminal masterminds, except Melanie has the sense to see something wrong with Old Dolio. In between the scams and bizarre arrangements, she tries to save Melanie from a crushing fate.
These characters never quite say what they feel, and instead July uses repetition to suggest what they are about. The Dynes live in a ramshackle apartment next to a factory, for example, and they have a strange routine where the clean pink-hued soap that seeps through the walls. This is presented with deadpan humor, and only later do we understand the implications of such behavior. Melanie is an utter shock to Old Dolio: she dresses in somewhat revealing clothing, and has ingratiates herself in a way that unintentionally breaks considerable defenses. Wood plays a familiar July character – sullen and withdrawn, with a voice that is below her normal speaking voice – so Rodriguez is the real surprise. She finally found a role that uses her charisma/charm from Jane the Virgin in an interesting, new way.
Beneath all the eccentricity and odd behavior, there is real tragedy in Kajillionare. The film has an allegorical quality, insofar that we are all a little bit like Old Dolio. We repeat the same mistakes as our parents, even when it is against our best interests, except this film takes that to an exaggerated degree. If we are lucky, our parents are nurturing and supportive, but Robert and Theresa have none of those qualities. They see their daughter as a co-conspirator, leading to a confrontation that suggests all she wants is to feel loved, if only for a moment. It is to July’s credit that is never depicted with broad theatrics, and she creates semi-plausible situations where Old Dolio hints at pain that is too deep to acknowledge fully.
Miranda July films a familiar, working class section of Los Angeles, except her sense of composition means that nothing unfolds in an ordinary way. This is especially true in the long climax, one where all the differing sensibilities click into full view. A lot of plot unfolds, all of it understated, leading to a minor miracle of acting between Wood and Rodriguez. How they regard each other and what they come to mean is genuinely heartwarming. You know the line “Shut up and deal” from The Apartment? Melanie says something like that to Old Dolio, and the payoff is just as rich. This is an art film that might move you to tears, as long you are willing to accept its wavelength.
Editor’s note: The only way to see Kajillionare is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when the film is available on streaming platforms.