Miranda July movies are not for everyone, and if you’ve never seen her work, you would probably be better off starting with her acclaimed 2005 debut feature Me You and Everyone We Know. Her latest film, Kajillionaire, continues to explore the themes about the strangeness of human connection, specifically with regards to our upbringing. July’s unique perspective throws into stark relief how much impact our parents have on our lives even though we never had any say in the matter. The film examines the conflict between how much we need our parents and yet also our need to grow beyond them when we discover they can’t give us everything we need. There are moments when July’s level of quirk can be grating (full disclosure: my exhaustion may have factored into my grumpiness, and I think I would have found moments of the movie more beguiling if I were in a better mood), but she constantly wins us over because beneath the bizarre characters and their strange world, there’s always an emotional truth.
Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) was born into a family of con artists. Her parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), enlist Old Dolio in their various petty scams so they can scrape together enough money to keep paying rent on the abandoned office where they live next to a factory that makes bubbles (part of their deal is making sure to constantly scoop up all the overflowing bubbles so that the structure doesn’t rot). While trying to get the $1,500 they need to pay the rent, they run into Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a normal woman who’s enchanted by the con artist life Old Dolio and her parents represent. Over the course of several days, Old Dolio begins to question her upbringing and if there may be something more to life than what her parents have given her.
To get into a Miranda July film, you first have to get on her wavelength. Her films don’t quite inhabit our reality, and you gather that from the offbeat line delivery from Old Dolio, the way her parents think every earthquake in Los Angeles is a prelude to “the big one”, and so forth. Obviously, these are metaphors for the strange upbringing we might have but doesn’t seem strange because it’s simply the reality with which we’ve been presented. Old Dolio doesn’t question the morality or the necessity of her family pulling scams and living in an abandoned office with a wall that oozes bubbles. It’s a thin line between quirk for quirk’s sake, and there are times when it seems like July is being a bit too casual with depictions of poverty, but the film largely works because the filmmaker is always tuned in to the human emotions at the core of her off-kilter world.
The addition of a character like Melanie is a huge boon to July. Until Melanie enters the picture, everything in Kajillionaire feels like a bit too much, and you kind of need a “normal” person to balance it out because she contrasts well with Old Dolio and her parents. It’s not so much that we need Melanie as an audience surrogate—this is very much Old Dolio’s story—but the way she grounds everything helps the film come alive and better accentuate its themes about what we perceive as normal based on how we’re raised. Melanie is the first person to offer Old Dolio a different kind of human connection and it changes her world.
Kajillionaire‘s strange tone makes it hard for the film to ever settle into much of a groove. There are times when the quirkiness threatens to overwhelm the story, and there are times when the film never has a full sense of Robert and Theresa beyond the grift, which cheapens the perspective of their parentage. But for me, Kajillionaire comes alive in the scenes between Melanie and Old Dolio because it’s a transformative relationship that explains everything else in Old Dolio’s life. The film is careful to note that Robert and Theresa aren’t evil people, but it’s debatable if they ever have Old Dolio’s best interests at heart.
The strangeness of Kajillionaire perhaps shouldn’t be so strange at all, at least as far as parents are concerned. July wryly shows how in many cases two people will have an immense amount of direction over who you become. You don’t choose your parents, and they don’t choose you, but it’s one of the most important relationships for most people. For Old Dolio, she has grown up afraid of human connection beyond her parents and understands love as splitting the take after the latest grift. Once again, July finds what’s sad and beautiful in human relationships.
There is currently no release date for Kajillionaire.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- Promising Young Woman