By Christian DiMartino
Miranda July is unfair to us.
Here is a wonderful writer director and actress who, in the past 15 years, has only brought us three movies. Admitted, I haven’t seen her second feature, The Future, but her first, the hypnotic indie darling Me and You and Everyone We Know was the work of a singular talent that was somewhere along the lines of a female Charlie Kaufman. There haven’t been many bright spots in 2020, but now here is two: first, July is back with a new movie, and second, it’s really good.
Said movie is called Kajillionaire, now available to rent for $19.99, and as I see it it is worth investing in. There is a chance that people will not go for this movie as much as I did, but to be frank, Kajillionaire is a rich, splendidly acted character study that unfolds in curious, interesting ways, and it’s one of the brighter highlights of the year.
The story reminded me somewhat of films like The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty, in that all three films revolve around a family that is mostly influenced by the poor choices of the parents. I liked the parents at the center of Running on Empty, played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti. I did not like the father at the center of The Mosquito Coast, played by Harrison Ford. Chances are, you will not like the parents at the center of Kajillionaire, and as it turns out, your dislike for them is at the root of the story.
The parents here are played to perfection by Richard Jenkins and, I suppose, Debra Winger. I say I suppose Debra Winger because, quite frankly, had she not been credited, I wouldn’t have recognized her. They play Theresa and Robert, two bums who live in the office building of a bubble factory (said office building leaks bubbles through the walls) with their daughter, the socially awkward and curiously named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood).
In order to get by, Theresa and Robert pretty much force Old Dolio into pulling off a plethora of get-rich-quick schemes, from stealing packages at the post office and returning the items to their owners, and so on. Old Dolio is quite the interesting sort, because her parents essentially force her into doing the hardest part of these jobs, but she doesn’t seem to have a problem with it… or, of course, she does, but she’s come to accept it due to their poor living conditions. In any case, her world is pretty much turned upside down with the introduction of Melanie (Gina Rodriguez).
Upon meeting Melanie on an airplane, they soon find themselves including her in their group, since she has a solid scheme of her own to help get through life and to help pay their rent. Melanie is essentially the Bizarro Dolio: she’s a free spirit, she’s charismatic, and quite the social butterfly. It’s no wonder that Theresa and Robert are so taken with her (and in more ways than one). This, of course, pops Old Dolio’s bubble though, and she sees Melanie as a threat… or does she?
The structure of this story is part of what makes this film tick. July plants the seed by making us believe this will be a heist film, or a commentary on poverty, and in ways it is both. However there is something deeper at the film’s core, and by the end, Kajillionaire sneaks up on you with its heart and soul. It could’ve been something familiar, and in ways it is, but it’s the way that July plays around with the old that makes it feel so new.
Jenkins and Winger are so good in roles that I wouldn’t necessarily call villainous, but rather, slimy. Here are two people essentially only see their daughter as part of a business transaction- so much so that whenever Old Dolio asks them for affection, well… let’s just say, it doesn’t go as it should. The film ultimately belongs to Wood and Rodriguez though.
Wood is an excellent actress who has been on my radar for some time, and at first her accent weirded me out. With that said though, she is a believable character through and through; a socially awkward woman who sounds… socially awkward, because she’s been surrounding herself by two people who are just about emotionally and socially, as well as literally, bankrupt. Once Rodriguez enters the picture though, Kajillionaire truly takes liftoff. This can serve as my first proper introduction to Rodriguez, seeing as I’ve never seen her in a major role before. Here, she really kills. It’s a commanding performance that is sly, sexy, and yet, like the film around her, there is much more to her than meets the eye.
July’s film is a reminder that, cinematically, the year is still young and not particularly terrible (even if the year has been terrible in other regards). It’s also a reminder that July, despite barely showing up to grace us with her presence, is one of the sharpest voices working today, and the people deserve to know. We need her.