Kajillionaire is the latest from writer/director Miranda July. So right off the bat, you know we’re getting something aggressively quirky and pretentious to the point of avant garde. This particular case tells the story of the Dyne family, specifically Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the family. (We do get an explanation for the character’s unusual name, but I won’t get into that here.) Her parents are Robert and Theresa Dyne, respectively played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger.
What we’ve got here are a family of con artists and grifters. They live from one petty crime to another, subsisting on the crumbs of society. They don’t even live in a proper house or apartment — they live in the abandoned office space of a cleaning supply company, in constant danger of collapsing because of all the soap seeping in through the walls. Naturally, the rent is dirt cheap and they can’t even afford that much.
See, Robert and Theresa are a couple of neurotic and paranoid conspiracy theorists who aggressively avoid any kind of capitalist/nationalist succor. Their scams and swindles are chump change by design, the better to keep from running into the cops and avoid getting addicted to money. The Dynes don’t trust anyone — they barely even trust each other — and they do everything possible to stay off the grid. The unfortunate downside is clearly visible in their daughter.
Old Dolio is painfully uncomfortable with any degree of physical touch. She has difficulty with eye contact, she talks in short and halted sentences, and she seems perpetually afraid of saying and doing the wrong thing. And yet, she proves extremely adept at routine jobs and cons that rely on muscle memory (forgery, for example).
I have to wonder if Old Dolio was born on the autism spectrum, or if her mannerisms are the byproduct of parenting without any degree of affection, trust, or intimacy. It’s an open question, as autism is never explicitly name-dropped and Old Dolio herself is never given any diagnosis. Either way, as an Aspergian, I don’t know how comfortable I am with this portrayal. I might also add that a crucial plot point in the third act involves a variation of rebirthing therapy, which is extremely controversial and surprisingly dangerous. The medical ethics and psychiatric accuracy of the film give me serious concern, is all I’m saying.
Anyway, long story short, matters are complicated when our family crosses paths with Melanie, played by Gina Rodriguez. She’s pretty, sociable, addicted to her smartphone, she’s got a loving (albeit clingy) family… basically, she’s the exact opposite of the Dyne Family. The exact opposite of Old Dolio in particular. So the Dyne parents smell money and they cozy up to this total stranger, treating her more like a daughter than they ever did with Old Dolio.
You can imagine how Old Dolio takes it, seeing this young woman who’s got everything she ever secretly wanted, up to and including the affection and pride of her parents. Yet Old Dolio knows something that Melanie doesn’t: What Robert and Theresa are like. So by the time Melanie accompanies the Dyne family on a job and she sees up close what her new partners in crime are really like, she’s already in over her head.
On the other hand, there’s the matter of the class disparity here. The Dynes are able to teach Melanie how to live without the luxuries she’s always taken for granted and implicitly assumed that she couldn’t live without. Meanwhile, Melanie is able to give the Dynes a small taste of the consumerist vices they’ve never known. At the potential risk of getting themselves addicted and making stupid choices.
The central crisis is that they Dynes need $1,500 in two weeks to make up their back rent. The problem is that as soon as they raise the money, they’ve got more in their pocket than they’ve ever had. This is a family that’s only ever lived hand-to-mouth, and now they have more money than they know what to do with. So of course they do the short-sighted and stupid thing.
And then we have the big one: The family dynamic. With the addition of a relatively well-adjusted person into the fucked-up Dyne family interplay, we have a person uniquely suited to calling out Robert and Theresa on all the ways they’ve broken their daughter. Likewise, Old Dolio herself gets a glimpse of what it’s like to be properly cared for. How the characters will react accordingly, well, that’s what powers the back half of the film.
Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez are playing solidly to their respective wheelhouses here, so of course they’re a joy to watch. Likewise, Debra Winger knocks it out of the park like the seasoned talent she is. The real surprise here is Evan Rachel Wood, turning in a completely immersive performance. Everything from her voice to her body language has been transformed beyond recognition, it’s outstanding work.
The film has no shortage of heart, but that’s standard with a Miranda July picture. Likewise, the movie has an overabundance of quirks, more interested in making emotional and thematic sense with little if any regard for literal sense. On paper, the plot is straightforward with very few significant twists or surprises, even if the filmmakers have to bend over backwards and ignore certain plot holes in getting the plot where it needs to go.
And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Melanie is a terribly inconsistent character with regards to her motivation and morality. Yes, it’s plausible that she’d be all in for stealing from people until the chips are down and she’s actually on the job, but the change of heart is flimsy in execution nonetheless.
As to whether any of this is a bug or a feature, that depends on your personal taste.
What I can say for a certainty is that Kajillionaire is not a bad movie. It’s competently made, well-acted (the superlative performance from Evan Rachel Wood is a highlight), thematically layered, and very sweet. In fact, it might be sweet to the point of saccharine. It’s one of those frustrating films that doesn’t do anything wrong (except maybe its questionable portrayals of rebirthing therapy and childhood abuse), but doesn’t knock anything out of the park. The one exception is its excess of quirkiness, and your mileage may vary as to whether that counts as memorably cute or pretentiously hollow.
I’d suggest waiting until the price drops from its current $20 price point before giving it a look.