With nine years since her last feature film, The Future, visionary film-maker Miranda July returns with a sweetly tender and whimsical exploration on the shackling nature of dysfunctional familial bonds, and seeking human connection in a deeply isolating world.
While con artists have continued to pervade our screens with all their allure of stylish disguises, high tech gadgets, and impossibly intricate schemes, Kajillionaire introduces us to the Dynes; an eccentric family of shabbily dressed grifters who invest their time in fleecing local post offices and independent business owners through unconventional methods. The patriarch, Robert (Richard Jenkins) is the ringleader among his own family as he preaches anti-capitalist philosophy to validate the illicit plans he orchestrates which often put 26 year old daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) in danger, while his supportive wife Theresa (Debra Winger) follows suit.
The Dyne family spend their days rummaging through garbage, sending Old Dolio to break into mailboxes through acrobatic manoeuvres to avoid the security cameras, then using the packaged items she has procured to claim as “lost” property to the original recipients in exchange of reward money or anything of value — all with the hope of making enough cash to pay the outstanding bills on their temporary housing, a $500 office space next to a bubble factory, which needs round-the-clock maintenance to prevent pink foam from oozing everywhere. However the Dynes soon find themselves on the verge of being evicted as they’re given two weeks to come up with $15,000 to secure their home.
Of course there is an irony to the family’s way of life, who are so fervently against the notion of getting a nine-to-five job and conforming to societal expectations of the familial roles they could inhabit that they have deprived themselves from happiness under the guise of self-preservation, which seems to require never-ending physical and emotional labour on each of their parts. What soon becomes clear to Old Dolio as she begins to question the nature of her relationship with her parents, is that Robert and Theresa have consciously made a lifelong commitment as adults to abide by their own philosophy, without giving their child a choice to experience life differently, let alone make her aware that any other alternative was possible.
Old Dolio, whose pale, hardened face is constantly hidden away behind her long unkempt hair, appears to be someone who has grown comfortable with being made to look invisible; she wears tracksuits that are several sizes too big for her, as if to intentionally obscure her figure, and her low masculine voice gives her an androgynous identity — perhaps encouraged by her parents to protect her from the advances of men, for any gestures of kindness are purely transactional arrangements in their eyes, as warned by her cynical mother: “When a man gives you wood, anything made of wood, he’s saying “You give me wood.” In fact, the possibility of Old Dolio falling pregnant is a recurring concern for her parents, but only as an occupational hazard.
Robert and Theresa’s insistence on treating Old Dolio as an equal partner by splitting everything three ways rather than babying her is a cold and somewhat unorthodox approach to parenting that has undoubtedly left her with psychological scars. Early on in the film Old Dolio reluctantly bargains (and fails) to exchange a gift certificate for money with a masseuse, only to begrudgingly accept a massage in which she cannot be touched, for this level of physical intimacy would be too unbearably overwhelming. What results is a brief but evocative moment in which Old Dolio slowly relaxes her body as if her hard exterior is melting away from the sheer warmth radiating from the masseuse’s fingertips — even the smallest glimmer of affection from a complete stranger can be more gratifying than years of emotionally-withholding nurturing.
The introduction of Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a willing partner-in-crime whose bubbly and charismatic persona comes complete with silky locks, manicured nails, and Instagram worthy outfits, poses as a threat to Old Dolio as she witnesses the ease in which her parents happily dote on the newcomer with hugs and terms of endearment. While Old Dolio is quick to dismiss Melanie as vacuous and superficial, the two soon find a kinship with one another, as Melanie has parental anxieties of her own which she has masterfully concealed behind a glossy veneer, and recognises Old Dolio as a fellow lonesome soul in need of unconditional love.
Evan Rachel Wood gives an electrifying performance that further demonstrates her limitless versatility as an actress — her body language is akin to a wounded animal, guarded and ashamed, her sullen voice occasionally chokes up as if she is weary from the pain she harbours, making one rapturous moment in which Old Dolio gives an unbridled dance performance, that is both clumsy and balletic, feel truly cathartic. July, in all her eccentricities as a film-maker, once again demonstrates an acute understanding of our universal yearning for human connection — to feel significant and worthy of love. Kajillionaire is a poignant reminder that we can all use a little tenderness during these isolating times.
Kajillionaire is now playing in select theatres in the USA and is a part of the virtual 2020 BFI London Film Festival selection. The film will stream on the BFI Player on October 7, 2020.
by Nathasha Orlando Kappler
Nathasha is a German-Mexican undergraduate studying English Literature and Film at the University of West London. When she is not programming for Berlin Film Society and Deptford Cinema, she is busy gushing over cats and unhinged heroines. Her favourite films include: Bringing Up Baby, Possession, Between The Lines, and Madeline’s Madeline. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.