If you want to understand Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) in Miranda July’s new film Kajillionaire, you have to know that July’s parents are Richard and Lindy Grossingerd from Berkley, California (here named the Dynes). Until we see Robert trying to sleep with Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) with Theresa’s blessing, it’s easy to confuse both for InfoWars-reading conspiracy theorists. Everytime a tremor hits Los Angeles Robert claims it’s “the big one” to finally end society, and every time life keeps moving. Little details like Robert and Melanie’s open marriage and knowing their inspirations come from one of the last bastions of the 1960s counter-culture gives you a sense of the world inhabited by Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood).
Old Dolio is the only daughter of her world-weary parents. She was raised to be a third in a partnership of petty crime that keeps a ramshackle of roof over the family. Robert reveals to their new friend and obsession Melanie that Dolio “learned to forge before she learned to write,’ adding, “it’s how she learned to write.” His daughter wasn’t born so much as she fell out. Old Dolio’s aversion to touch and her parents refusal to nurture her results in a 26-year-old who’s only grasp of reality is serving her parent’s every whim. Wood’s character seems premised on the culmination alternative parenting theories Theresa and Robert learned somewhere along the way. The kind of ideas that appeal to a couple who are already on the outs with society and need a good idea to further justify their exclusion.
Sebastian Wintero shot Kajillionaire with a Panavision anamorphic C-series lens, giving the story a wide image that curves the actor’s surroundings and backgrounds, foregrounding the idea that these four people are in an isolated world of their making—not unlike Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, who sees the world through his own prism. It’s an epic viewpoint of this family’s extreme dysfunction. The image brings us into their particularities unfolding at once. At times, the scenes are play-like in that everything we need to know happens in frame, not unlike the poetics of stage space that draws an audience into theater. The image is more dynamic than being trained on one view as in theater. When the quad scam their second home-bound elderly victim, they keep the sedentary man at bay by creating the sounds of a suburban family reflecting on the day, watching television and having dessert. The sounds soothe him as he’s in his bed and out of sight. He simply trusts they mean no harm. When Melanie plays piano for him, light comes bursting into the room, brightening the image. For a split second, the clan of scammers enjoy the traditional family roles each is performing. It’s an insight to either the family’s failed theories of familial life, or how society failed to support them in their natural roles. Maybe it’s both. This image reveals the sense of loss at what might have been for the trio.
There are hints of a lesbian romance blossoming between Melanie and Old Dolio. One of Melanie’s pressed-on nails is bent by Old Dolio, leading Dolio to intimately remove the remaining nails. Old Dolio’s appearance is that of a tomboy. If she were allowed to flourish on her own, perhaps she would have a more age-appropriate bull dyke look, but she isn’t afforded the ritual of adulthood. One of her early scams is to attend a parenting class for a lady. At the class she is struck by video of a newborn baby crawling its way to their mother’s breast for the first time. It’s a moment of nurturing that’s foreign to her experience with her own parents; hence her arrested development. An eleventh hour break from her parents is just what Old Dolio needs to enjoy herself and express her sexualiy with Melanie for the first time. But when her parents intervene to reconcile with their daughter, the Old Dolio’s small gains could be lost. Instead, we’re left with the image of Dolio and Melanie kissing as they return the gifts from Theresa and Robert. The amount of money Old Dolio receives from her returns is a third of the payment she was splitting with her parents for an earlier scam involving faking missing luggage with an airline. In the end, despite Old Dolio’s parent’s protestations to the contrary, she was only worth one third of the earnings the family conjured up, a devastating reality for Dolio, but one she accepts along with her new, adult love found in Melanie.
July’s third feature fits nicely in her canon of mixed media. The performances are singular, from Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, the only “normal” character in the bunch, to Debra Winger’s Theresa, who has the least to say in the film, but whose performance is the most pregnant with meaning when her dysfunctional relationship with Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio comes to a head. The film’s laughs are mostly ironic and the drama is slowly sussed out over the course of the movie. It’s not an impatient viewer’s movie; it’s not a Netflix and chill kind of story. Kajillionaire’s richness comes from sitting with July’s characters in their schemes and suffering. It’s a character-based dramedy, not so different from Little Miss Sunshine and other Sundance hits before it. Kajillionaire is the kind of story that exists in a space between the mundane and the profound. It could be off-putting to some, but the space the movie exists helps make sense of the mess of the character’s fractured lives.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Kajillionaire is a Plan B/Annapurna Pictures production with UTA currently seeking distribution.
Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.