Miranda July is a weirdo. Ask anyone and they’ll agree. But whether or not this is a compliment depends on who you ask. It’s been 15 years since we were first introduced to July’s quirky and affecting style in her debut feature, Me And You And Everyone We Know, and nine years since her sophomore film, The Future. In the interim, July has kept herself busy with acting, novel writing, and performance art, but she has finally returned to the world of filmmaking with Kajillionaire, her new feature film about a family of LA scam artists.
Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their 26-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), survive unconventionally by running small scams and avoiding their landlord whom they owe three months rent to. Living in a dilapidated office space beneath a bubble factory, the Dynes routinely catch giant waves of pink bubbles leaking from the ceiling in buckets and pour them down the drain. It’s a surreal image, but it’s one that doesn’t feel out of place in July’s bizarre cinematic universe.
Always treated more like a colleague than a daughter, Old Dolio plays the pawn in most of their scams — but she starts to desire change. In order to make a quick $20, Old Dolio attends a court mandated positive parenting class on behalf of someone else and is introduced to the concept of attachment bonding. It’s here she realises that she would like to spend more time with Theresa, hoping to use their competition prize, roundtrip tickets to New York, as the perfect mother-daughter bonding opportunity. However, Robert shoots it down, unconsciously telling Old Dolio that her emotional needs don’t matter and, quite frankly, they never have.
Disappointed, Old Dolio comes up with a way for her family to earn their rent money — by flying to and from New York and claiming on lost luggage insurance. During the flight, they meet witty mall employee Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who they convince to join their next scam. Melanie is the complete opposite of Old Dolio — bright, warm and relatively normal — and her inclusion challenges Old Dolio’s role in the family when her parents show Melanie the same affection she longs for. While Kajillionaire is about a con artist family’s crimes, it’s more about how they’ve emotionally neglected their daughter — which is arguably their biggest crime yet.
Old Dolio is awkward. She speaks in a deep monotone voice, wears baggy unflattering clothes and has long hair that has likely never seen a pair of scissors. She is completely starved of attention and lacks her own sense of self — even her name is a unique identity that belongs to someone else. Old Dolio has spent all her life playing pretend in order to scam other people out of money that she likely hasn’t ever considered who she really is. Most of July’s characters feel incapable of living in the real world and this feeling is captured realistically through Old Dolio’s limited world in which her parents have raised her in, even if it is kind of bonkers.
While many sequences play for awkward laughs, July’s work always takes the time to explore the deeper themes of introspection, which is exactly what Kajillionaire does by allowing Old Dolio to finally recognise her unmet needs. There are a lot of narrative surprises as relationship dynamics are tested and Melanie tries to help Old Dolio find herself. July’s concise and unpredictable screenplay perfectly complement Wood’s unique performance, while examining the conditions in which Old Dolio was raised. Her parents live in survival mode due to their unconventional lifestyle, with Robert being highly anxious and overreacting to earthquake tremors because he believes “the big one” will kill everybody. The three of them don’t exist in a stable environment.
Kajillionaire’s offbeat tone and washed-out colour palette won’t be suited to everyone’s tastes, but it will be truly rewarding to those who can relate to Old Dolio’s disconnection from her surroundings and her desire to be loved. Those who enjoyed July’s previous films will also find themselves completely at home with this quirky and heartwarming dark comedy. Kajillionaire is a signature Miranda July experience that explores unconventional parenting styles and how this leads to us becoming dysfunctional adults. July is known for writing eccentric characters who find themselves in unusual situations and that’s exactly the treat she delivers.
Kajillionaire is in UK Cinemas from October 9th.