Miranda July makes films about people longing for connection. Hardly an unusual theme for indie cinema, and at their heart they are simple tales full of a wistful sentimentality that is very Hollywood. She disguises this through a deadpan style marked by outlandish quirks that fall somewhere between mumblecore and her background in performance art. As such, despite acclaim for her debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, she tends to irritate as much as beguile. Kajillionaire is her most accessible work, but still needs to be crowbarred open by an effervescent Gina Rodriguez. She’s the glitter grenade dropped into the hermetic lives of a dysfunctional family of low-rent con artists
The Dyne family live in a deserted office block whose walls ooze daily from the overspill from the bubble factory next door. This is easily the frothiest element in the life of Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the curiously-named daughter of bargain basement criminals Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). Perpetually hunched, arms hanging loose as if both shoulders are dislocated, and squinting out from a curtain of frazzled hair, Old Dolio looks like a discarded snap from a photoshoot for a grunge band. Her withdrawn nature is due to a lack of parental love. She has always been treated as a partner, never a child. So when the family meet fellow grifter Melanie (Rodriguez) she is initially confused and resistant. But before long, Melanie begins to pry open her shell, which also stirs resentment to her family she never realised she harboured.
July bakes her Los Angeles in a shell of awkwardness and absurdism as she sets up life with the Dynes. Think of the Shibata clan from Koreeda‘s Shoplifters filtered through a prism of hipster irony and you are some way there. There is an impenetrability to both their lives and to the film up until the point that Old Dolio hatches a plan to use free flights to New York to facilitate a luggage scam. This signifies an exit from the family’s comfort zone and brings Melanie into the picture.
As soon as Rodriguez appears on screen, the film suddenly explodes into life. Kajillionaire then becomes a fulcrum in two counterweight performances. Wood’s verbally taciturn, intensely physical role is the trickier of the two, but Rodriguez’s ebullient chattiness is a perfect foil even if Melanie initially seems like a jarring intruder from a different movie. Before long she has coaxed the Dynes into her own grift. This leads to the film’s most extraordinary moment, in which the tricksters play out a scene of everyday domestic happiness for the benefit of an a dying old man. It is such an odd scene, but sums up July’s approach. Beneath it all, it’s both genuinely warm and sincere, and also acts as a dramatic eureka moment for Old Dolio as her first glimpse of how a ‘normal’ family (that is admittedly a very subjective term) would behave.
Even as the friendship between Melanie and Old Dolio evolves, it is still very much a Miranda July film – it will be no surprise to anyone that ‘performance artist’ appears on the CV of this polymath – and she isn’t interested in taking the role most travelled to a familiar destination. It’s almost as if she is embarrassed by her own empathy so smears her film in a thick coating of kookiness, or wants the viewer to really earn that warm, uplifting, happy ending. Kajillionaire is worth persevering with through the stuttering start and the required suspension of disbelief; besides the weirdness, the most unbelievable part is that Melanie would want to attach herself to these three emotionally-stunted stooges. There will be many not willing to make the necessary investment (especially the many who viscerally hated July’s previous film, The Future), but for those whose romantic streak is slightly jagged this could be right up their crooked little alley.
Screened as part of BFI Film Festival 2020 and in cinemas from Fri 9 Oct 2020