Unwieldy, poignant and delightful — Miranda July’s new feature Kajillionaire is everything you’d expect. Her usual fascinations are all there: a protagonist who struggles to connect with the people around her, aging characters with agency, others with distinct voices and, of course, the idiosyncratic flavor that shrink-wraps the whole package. But the oddball family dramedy — her third feature in the last 15 years — also reflects July’s evolution from an outsider once fighting for a place in American indie cinema to someone whose mark on cinema is now indelible.
Lauded at Sundance, Kajillionaire hit a number of COVID-19-related delays ahead of its theatrical release, but will debut in some theaters starting September 25, before rolling out on premium VOD about three weeks later. The movie tells the story of the Dynes, a family of small-time scammers in Los Angeles who spend their days stealing, wheeling, and dealing, and dividing their spoils three ways. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) treat their emotionally stunted daughter Old Dolio (yep, that’s what they named her) — a dynamite performance from Evan Rachel Wood — more like an indentured servant than their child, a dynamic which serves as the emotional wound around which the movie unwinds. As evidenced by the film’s title, July also seeks to examine American consumerism by heightening the capitalism-induced haze that keeps the Dynes running on the hamster wheel of the perpetual micro-heist.
A series of literally and figuratively touching events push Old Dolio to question her upbringing and how it has limited her capacity for feeling and expressing emotion as a 26-year-old who still lives by her parents’ rules. For example, when a massage therapist (Da’vine Joy Randolph) touches her back — during a session scored via a scam — she is so unfamiliar with physical touch that her entire body jumps reflexively like a bullfrog. Likewise, Old Dolio’s budding sensuality meets its prime catalyst when a lost luggage scheme introduces her and her parents to Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) a vivacious and lonesome woman who wants to spice up her life by tagging along with the Dynes as they pull a new con.
Throughout the film, the camera pushes in and out in painstaking increments, matching the speed of Old Dolio’s transformation. There’s a striking shot where the camera pans up her body like she’s a skyscraper, perfectly revealing how fragile and neglected she is. July adeptly uses Emile Mosseri’s (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) whimsical original score to compensate for the Dynes’ hard edges. All this adds up to a film that is a cross between performance art — another of July’s artistic mediums — and an operetta.
Kajillionaire is fundamentally about what it means to re-parent one’s self as an adult, and specifically how romantic partners do — or don’t — take that on. Like witnessing a newborn developing into a toddler, it’s a gratifying watch that feels as magical as it does down-to-earth.
Kajillionaire (2020), dir. Miranda July debuts in select cinemas on September 25.