If you’ve seen the trailer, Kajillionaire is sold as a classic, quirky US indies that often do the rounds, pick up the plaudits and give you the feel-good finale. While Writer/Director Miranda July’s film is on that eccentric side of storytelling, and truth be told it does hold an essence of redemption, it’s also inventive, thought-provoking and rewardingly original.
This was my first visit to July’s work but I’m glad it’s my ticket inside the storyteller’s world. In her film, we follow the low-level con-artist world of Theresa (played with purposeful distance and ambiguity by Debra Winger), Robert (a dishevelled, occasionally creepy and frantic Richard Jenkins), and their daughter ‘Old Dolio’ (a compelling, complicated Evan Rachel Wood), as they scuttle around their local neighbourhood, scamming their way through the day to make cash.
What this money is for, bar basic essentials, isn’t too clear because they also live in the back of a laundry factory, one in which they literally remove the bubbles that fall through the ceiling, in order to keep the damp away. While they’re supposed to pay for this ‘luxury’, they’re not actually paying their rent, yet the daily scrap for cents continues through literally stealing, sniffing out shifty deals or plain old lying.
It’s clearly a strange life but we’re also witness to something lingering beneath the needs of Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio, who’s beginning to question their lives and her place in it, but she doesn’t know why. She might be disconnected but doubts are building, as if there might be better out there. With debts growing, she comes up with a plan of accidentally losing their luggage after a cheap flight and claiming on insurance. Whilst the plan works, on the flight home her parents befriend Gina Rodriguez’s Melanie, a happy-go-lucky sort with a lot of charm, and her parents bring her in on their dishonest deals, because she’s interested and alludes to secrets of her own.
At first, Melanie loves the scams but Old Dolio doesn’t warm to her, as she’s jealous of Melanie being treated better as a fake daughter than she’s ever been as a real one. But there’s something else, there’s an emotive spark between the girls but Old Dolio doesn’t really know how to deal with it, and Melanie is aware. Rodriguez is Kajillionaire’s catalyst because she’s the opposite in terms of their personas plus she’s warm, charismatic and gives Old Dolio a world she’s never considered before, one outside and away from her parents – two people who only ever use her their gain.
In another film, these moments could create a heavy darkness but there’s a light, human touch to July’s film yet it’s also full of beautiful complexity. Whilst undoubtedly unconventional in its approach to a story about family, love and trust – and how all those things entwine, stretch and break – at its heart it’s deeply touching with an enchanting fascination throughout. At many moments, I found it more of an emotional experience, as if I were Old Dolio, gradually discovering the world open around her. There’s a wonderful, unforgettable scene in a room that’s pitch black – that’s all I’ll give you – where you’re taken away, and I found myself physically pulled to the screen, to soak it all in.
What’s particularly smart is while the initial trio is the perfect example of ‘quirky’ people who live at the back of the laundry factory, Director July and cinematographer Sebastian Winterø succeed in making it feel ordinary, so maybe we’re in an age where we expect to see people rummaging for every penny, or living in extreme places, simply trying to get by. To be truthful, should we be worried that I didn’t find the squalor that weird? That’s an uncomfortable thought, that maybe we’ve all normalised the day-to-day struggle.
Kajillionaire wasn’t what I expected it to be, and in a refreshing way (including some wonderful piano motifs, which is re-worked in a climactic scene with subtle smartness), I did find the film funny but it’s also a tender, reflective and sensual study of the strange in our life. From guilt to redemption, I want to know where our two characters in the end shot go next, and that type of connection is always worth celebrating with glorious performances from all but, particularly, Gina Rodriquez and the exceptional Evan Rachel Wood.