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by Owen Larkin

Going into Kajillionaire without a basic understanding of Miranda July’s work is total cinematic whiplash. This is exactly the position I was in when I watched the film: completely unaware what July’s other films are like, or even what this one is about. It is a film defined by the comedic sensibilities of its director to a degree that will undoubtedly turn people on or off depending on their own personal tolerance for the twee indie of the 2000s. Luckily enough, my ‘twee tolerance’ is fairly high, and I quickly connected with this bizarre, lovely film that wears its heart on its sleeve every chance it gets.

The film follows a family of socially awkward con artists — Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood — who are determined to stay in the abandoned, rotting workspace they live in. In their attempt to raise the money needed to pay their rent, they end up encountering Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). She advocates her own ideas of how to go about their operation. Along the way, she teaches the family’s only child, Old Dolio (Wood), what the world can be, disturbing the tight-knit familial structure her parents have made her follow her entire life. 

July’s film strikes a unique balance tonally. The film is frequently amusing – taking the comedic potential of that fish-out-of-water premise and doing something new with it. I’ve seen few movies that take the time to have a conversation regarding the ethics of such a well-known trope like this one does. Despite the dramatic underpinnings, the film thankfully never forgets that it is, in fact, a comedy. From the random earthquakes that reoccur throughout the film to the bubbly substance that fills the walls of the family’s living space, Kajillionaire constantly remains just bizarre enough to remind you that it takes place in a goofy heightened reality. In one standout scene, a dark room begins to fill up with stars, the reality of the film disrupted by the pure dreamlike emotion of the characters. Where the film most succeeds most is when it blends these offbeat elements into more dramatic situations. Typically, when a comedy decides to ‘get serious’, the narrative stops dead in its tracks and the comedic momentum is gone. Kajillionaire never has a moment quite like that– it’s through the natural progression of the story that July reveals the family as sad individuals. While some viewers will likely find its exploration of the lower class to be a bit shallow, July’s empathetic direction lets the audience set aside some of the greater implications of this story. It is light and bouncy, much like the status quo that starts the film.

In terms of performances, Evan Rachel Wood is undeniably the standout. Rattling off her lines in a monotone voice eerily similar to Mira Sorvino’s deadpan portrayal of Romy in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, Wood conveys Old Dolio’s isolative melancholy and a total lack of understanding of how the world works. Without much elaboration, the performance captures the lack of love this character must’ve received prior to the start of the film, her parents only giving her as little as possible to survive. Those parents, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, have similarly cartoonish energy, existing outside any parental figure archetypes we know from other movies. They clearly tried their best as parents, and their love for their daughter is palpable despite the limited resources they have.

Gina Rodriguez is also impressive as Melanie, fulfilling her role as the only grounded one in this story. Her character intentionally feels like she walked out of a different movie, and that difference between her and all the other characters helps set an absurd premise into a tangible reality. The dysfunctional relationship between her and Old Dolio reveals the film to be a bizarre coming-of-age movie and provides the film with an unexpected heart. The second half of the film, which focuses more on the relationship between the two, captures the wonderful sensation of discovering oneself in a way that I found particularly touching. 

Kajillionaire is a strange movie. It feels ripped out of an early-2000s Sundance and dropped into theaters and VOD at a time where the instability of personal connection is at its highest. To watch a movie like this that’s all about escaping your home and finding companionship in the outside world in our current time period feels all the more emotionally relevant. While likely coincidental, Kajillionaire’s heart is in the right place at the right moment, and Miranda July’s compassionate direction reminds us that hopefully everything is going to be okay.