My admiration for writer/director/artist Miranda July runs deep, and the feeling began when I first saw her 2005 debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know (her follow-up, The Future, is also quite good). That film is one of the most awkward romantic comedies about emotionally damaged people I’ve ever seen, and watching July’s character Christine share an orbit with John Hawkes’ Richard was like watching baby deer take their first steps. July’s latest, the Sundance highlight Kajillionaire, is a different beast altogether, yet her commitment to telling the stories of those whose lives rarely get put on the big screen is impressive, admirable and, once again, remarkable in its ability to make us uncomfortable, while still succeeding at charming us.
At the center of Kajillionaire is a family of three con-artists: mother Theresa (an almost unrecognizable Debra Winger), father Robert (Richard Jenkins), and 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who has clearly been raised to be the ultimate swindler. Together the trio live their small-scale lives always looking for a way to scam someone out of the smallest amount of money. When you see their lives play out, it’s almost comical if it wasn’t so pathetic. Old Dolio is a clean slate of a human being, talking in a low register and behaving like an emotionless robot who will never feel bad for scamming someone who is dumb enough to trust her and let themselves be taken. She’s not a cruel person, but she possesses a single-minded approach to life that doesn’t leave much room for giving or receiving affection, even though her parents seem to care for each other and express themselves more completely than she does.
Old Dolio stands rigidly and expresses herself so that it almost seems like it hurts her to communicate, making it often painful to watch her exist on screen, except when she seems to spring to life during a con job. As the film goes on, we find out that her parents have never said they love her or thrown her a birthday party or been affectionate in any outward way; they believe that teaching her certain survival skills is their way of showing their love for her, but the damage is already done. That damage is underscored when the group meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a bubbly personality who inspires all three of the family members to fall for her in different ways, an exercise that turns their world inside-out.
Working in healthcare, Melanie comes up with a scam involving taking advantage of clients who can’t leave their houses to come see her, so she goes to them with the family and charms the mark while the family goes through the house looking for anything valuable. The execution is more of a mess than the plan sounds, but it does bring the family closer to Melanie, who is clearly drawn to the mystery of Old Dolio’s very existence.
I’m making Kajillionaire sound much more straightforward than it is, and part of its success is due to Wood’s absolute commitment to her character’s emotional desperation. The second she sees that her parents are capable of affection toward anything—in this case, Melanie—she begins to long for a small piece of it. She even offers them her cut of a big score if her mother will call her “Hon,” and Theresa can’t do it because it would betray the natural order of their relationship. It’s hard to see genuine cruelty in the parents’ behavior or decisions, but there’s a type of neglect on display that is impossible to dismiss.
The heart and soul of the movie is the relationship between Old Dolio and Melanie, and it’s hard to watch the film and not wonder if Melanie is playing another scam to get something from this emotionally shutdown woman. Even when Robert and Theresa attempt to do something “normal” to celebrate Old Dolio’s birthday, it comes across as forced and possibly just another scam. At a certain point, it’s impossible to trust anyone here, even though some people are being 100 percent honest.
The deeper into Kajillionaire I went, the more I found myself invested not just in the characters’ lives but also their fates. Even the eternally optimistic Melanie is clearly dealing with something, as she frequently takes calls from her mother that seem to hint at something troubling going on in a part of her life we never completely see. At first we assume her relationship with Old Dolio is about curiosity, but there may be a kindred spirit there as well, and that makes their relationship all the more important, healing and special to both of them. By being emotionally raw and honest, filmmaker July once again succeeds at allowing us to empathize with her oddball creations. She plumbs the depth of their humanity and allows us to see (in slightly exaggerated ways) the fragility in all of us and the inner strength to reset our course. This is a terrific work of art.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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