Director: Miranda July
Screenwriter: Miranda July
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez
The phrase ‘normal family’ is oxymoronic; there is no archetype for normal. Society may have swallowed down commercialised, and capitalist fuelled notions of the perfect family: frequent, home-cooked meals, white picket fences and perfectly tuned emotional bonds. But, to infer that there is a model of ‘normal’ which any household might easily mould itself into, is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Families are, by very definition, unique bubbles of chaos, acting as spheres of collective consciousness which build the world view of the people existing on the inside. For the ever-whimsical Miranda July, it is these individual family bonds and their consequences that concern her newest feature film, Kajillionaire.
In her previous work, You and Me and Everyone We Know and The Future, July demonstrated an attentive interest in the interpersonal trials and tribulations of human relationships, specifically the fluctuating bonds connecting both family and lovers. Much is the same with Kajillionaire, in which she digs deep into a tight family unit of laughably terrible con-artists operating within Los Angeles. July’s protagonist, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), with her overly long, sandy blonde hair, low octave voice and oversized tracksuits, is instinctively dismissible as an indifferent ‘skater/stoner’ type. However, once we learn that Old Dolio has been denied a traditional upbringing by her oddball parents, who reject any notion of conventional family values, it transpires that July’s third narrative feature isn’t as easily definable as initially anticipated.
Robert and Theresa (played with comical buffoonery by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) treat their daughter with cold indifference, having focused all their attention on raising her to be a full-time petty-thief. The family come Ocean’s Eleven-style heist crew get by on small-time post office scams, unjustified reward money and mail-in competitions from which they split all profits into three equal parts. When Old Dolio wins a three-day trip to New York, the group hatch a lost luggage insurance scam which promises to provide them with enough cash to pay off their overdue rent payments to their squeaky-voiced landlord. Not that their ‘home’ is worth the money they are chasing to pay for it. Located next to a ‘bubble-factory’, the family find themselves living their lives around soapy-pink bubbles which descend from the walls with a timely precision they can set their watches to. The cartoonish presence of the bubbles feels like July poking fun at the absurdity of modern property in L.A, and the overt commercialism of the very city itself, which finds a way to seep into the lives of all of its residents, even the most reluctant.
On the flight back home, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an upbeat fellow passenger, catches a whiff of the family’s hair-brained scheme and offers to insert herself into their play, to give the scam more believability. Curious about the unorthodox group’s way of life, Melanie ingrains herself into their world with ease, gleaning warmth and affection from Robert and Theresa, which, a now jealousy-stung Old Dolio covets more than any big score. There is a sense of ‘we are your family, and this is how we do things’ to Richard and Theresa, who give their daughter no wriggle room from the life they have chosen for her and no place to establish her own identity. Which, although exacerbated by July here, is a universal feeling for all young adults when they reach an age where they want to experience the world on their own terms. Gina, whom July initially introduces as a quick-talking, vapid Instagram type, becomes the first person to ever treat Old Dolio with warmth or affection and is readily accepting of the outsider traits of her personality. Gina pulls Old Dolio into a new reality, shattering her outdated world view when she tells her that ‘most happiness comes from dumb things’ – like dancing or tiny pancakes.
Kajillionaire plays out with surprising compassion and warmth, which can only be attributed to its pitch-perfect cast. Richard Jenkins (Step Brothers, The Shape of Water) and Debra Winger (An Officer and A Gentlemen) deliver tip-top pantomime villain characterisation, with an injection of silliness and exaggerated character quirks: a pronounced limp for Winger and preposterous facial expressions for Jenkins. As such, much of the film rests on visual comedy, with Evan Rachel Wood (‘Westworld’, The Wrestler) also delivering Chaplinesque movement. Wood plays Old Dolio with juvenile naivety: Old Dolio believes that her Mission Impossible-style capers and awkward teenage gait conceal her from public attention, when in fact, she couldn’t be any more noticeable. Gina Rodriguez (‘Jane the Virgin’) is a ray of light throughout and bounces off each cast member with supreme ease and hilarity.
July’s story, although masked underneath a rich banquet of her personal brand of surrealist deadbeat humour, is in what is going on underneath the clownery. Like most of July’s work, there is a bounty of subtext to unearth which within Kajillionaire points towards an allegory of Queerness and gender identity. The echoes of this narrative are measured and slight but exist nonetheless in Old Dolio’s journey towards self-acceptance. Old Dolio seems completely unsure of herself and unbearably lonely, trapped within the closeted world view of her parents. Their fear of ‘The Big One’, or the event that will end the world, keeps Old Dolio close, but still, she yearns for something they refuse to understand. Once Gina arrives and begins to validate Old Dolio’s feelings, we see her begin to tackle and unlearn the toxic traits and anxieties that her parents have instilled within her—this being a story many members of the LGBTQ+ community know all too well. Kajillionaire affirms to its audience that there is worth in stepping away from the opinions and politics of your family by offering a glimmer of hope to the disheartened viewer in the form of Melanie. It feels as if July is suggesting that, one day, your own Melanie will arrive and help you on your way to finding yourself.
The fluidity of Kajillionaire speaks to July’s talent as an artist known for working across a variety of mediums. For as quickly as July establishes the film as a heist movie, she switches tact and begins to set up a coming of age tale, before finally blossoming the narrative into a love story. This experimental structure and lack of thematic groove, entangled in July’s bohemian-style flair might leave some viewers more exhausted than entertained. Yet, for those of us who enjoy a dose of whimsy now and again, Kajillionaire might be the most significant emotional gut-punch of the year.