It seems weird to say considering the year of high profile postponements that we have had so far, but it very much feels that the past couple of weeks have seen the film world creep ever so slightly through the ajar door of awards season. Of course, at this point in time I have absolutely no idea what awards season is even going to mean in the context of 2020, but nevertheless, there is something about the themes, the clout and the overall vibes of recent and upcoming releases that feels distinctly ‘awardsy’ to me. I very much felt that Kajillionaire might part of that crew.
Written and directed by the wildly multitalented Miranda July, Kajillionaire tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), a twenty something odd ball who, stuck in a miserable codependent relationship with her even odder parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), lives an existence of small time cons and grifting to get by. After inviting stranger Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) into the fold for a set of new swindles, the foundations of the family’s unusual and increasingly unhealthy dynamic begin to be rocked, as Old Dolio and Melanie’s connection begins to strengthen.
Whilst acknowledging that not every casual viewer is going to be willing to get on Miranda July’s unique wavelength, all I can say is that, from a personal point of view, Kajillionaire is an absolutely wonderful movie. On face value the film is a black comedy crime drama that feels like it is floating above any kind of grounded reality both in character and in content, but the longer you watch, the more you start to see that the sheer amount of themes covered within the narrative is quite striking to behold.
Alongside a host of whimsically comical small scale robbery content, there is also a devastating thread at the heart of the film that deals with real, heavy emotional issues like childhood neglect, stunted personal development and repressed sexuality. I have seen some critics describe Kajillionaire as a coming of age story, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Besides the blossoming of a (albeit unconventional) romance, the film is so much more complex in its messaging than a standard Bildungsroman, and all the better for it in my opinion. In her quest, or natural tendency I guess, to think about things differently and present ideas in very unique ways, it really feels here like Miranda July has invented a genre all of her own.
I’m struggling to neatly put into words everything that I feel about Kajillionaire, and that is quite possibly because I have never watched or experienced anything quite like it. It has the essence of any number of quirky indie dramedies that you might have seen and loved before, whilst at the same time feeling wholly and distinctly original. I laughed a lot, I cried a little, and I ultimately (and unexpectedly) found myself profoundly moved by this little crime comedy. I think that counts as a triumph by anyone’s standards.
A relatively small scale venture, there truly are only four performances of note in the film, and those are by the actors already mentioned. As Old Dolio Dyne, Evan Rachel Wood is very much in her awkward, kooky, sullen wheelhouse, but vitally she also brings a lot of tenderness and empathy to a character that is one of the most unique I have experience in a long time. Named by her parents after a homeless man who won the lottery in the hopes of such luck rubbing off on them, the defining trait of Old Dolio’s life is the lack of any real familial love and affection. Raised as a swindling accomplice rather than a daughter, Wood’s characterisation is one filled with emotional inexperience and stunted development, something that she plays with in really interesting and touches ways throughout.
Responsible for some of that development is Melanie, wonderfully played by Gina Rodriguez. Providing a real breath of lively fresh air, essentially the only relatively ‘normal’ character in a story filled with oddballs, Rodriguez lights up the screen whilst still maintaining the ability to tap into the more sinister and melancholy angles of the narrative when required. Together, Wood and Rodriguez share an unexpected but irresistible chemistry, a really different kind of slow burn that feels really intriguing and electrifying to watch unfold.
As parents Robert and Theresa, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both do excellent work. At some points hilarious, at some points pitiful, at other points downright awful, Jenkins and Winger are clearly having a liberating time playing this problematic duo. Debra Winger in particular gives the type of performance that not every actress of her stature and stage of career would want to. The glamour is non existent, as is any audience sympathy; it is essentially a haggard bad mother role with an added side of unfolding creepiness, and I love that someone like Winger is willing to undertake this kind of interesting but unlikeable work.
Overall, I think you can surmise how I feel about Kajillionaire. Much like my last reviewed film Eternal Beauty, this is a picture that has shot out of nowhere straight into my top ten of the year so far. An offbeat, eccentric crime dramedy that also doubles as an unexpected but wholly enthralling queer romance, let me tell you, that is very much my shit. Do yourself a favour and give this one a chance; Miranda July’s style might not be for everyone, but it certainly WAS for me.