Between Shoplifters and Parasite, new movies about “scamilies” (that’s my new term for “scam artist families,” don’t wear it out), continue to provoke fascinating ideas about class warfare and the lengths people will go to in order find a sliver of success in an economic world rigged against them. Kajillionaire represents yet another wonderful progression of this budding wave of “scamily” films (last time, I swear), but instead of railing against the 1%, director and writer Miranda July (The Future) sets her sights on parental abuse and toxicity.
The film stars Evan Rachel Wood as “Old Dolio,” the only child of Robert and Theresa, played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. These kooky, conspiratorial parents have spent decades living con-to-con, training their daughter to be a useful pawn able to duck in and around cameras at post offices so she can steal from P.O. boxes, as we see in the opening scene.
At first, the family’s struggle and failure to make any money is played entirely for off-beat humor, as we see time and again why they all have to sleep in a closed office where soapy bubbles continuously leak through the walls. To reveal more of the plot would be a disservice to how Kajillionaire consistently surprises with its various set pieces, especially in the early goings, but the film truly comes alive when introducing Gina Rodriguez as Melanie, a random stranger who is immediately enchanted by the family’s lifestyle and wants in on their next scheme—much to Old Dolio’s seemingly bitter reservations.
It would be easy to write off Kajillionaire as a quirky Sundance, coming-of-age indie trying too hard to be subversive and playful with its craft for the sake of it. But by the film’s middle section, it becomes increasingly clear that Miranda July knows exactly what kind of movie you think you’re about to get and then decides to derive a fresh story out of those expectations. This is apparent in how she purposefully mixes songs and compositions with tonally dissonant scenes, where in other movies, we’d complain that the film is attempting to manipulate our emotions, Kajillionaire flaunts and points a stick at the rules of dramatic storytelling.
But more importantly, the sync of sound and scene in this film plainly works. Kajillionaire is a bizarrely lovable world filled with bizarrely lovable characters you may not always like, but you’ll undoubtably want to see interact again and again. Much like how the characters themselves appear to be addicted to each other, we can’t get enough of them, either. Jenkins and Winger, in particular, skirt a tough line between lovable and devilish, somehow never traipsing too far into either extreme.
And despite the freewheeling nature of the narrative, which is a bit hard to predict for the most part, the film’s structure is impeccably focused on what it’s trying to say about growing out of the weirdness and even ills you absorb from your family, whether they be con artists or simply well-meaning people with their own problematic hangups. It can be something as harmless as a fear of tremors you’ve picked up because your parents take them quite seriously, but also a troublesome anxiety over affection they’ve inspired in you as well.
Not everyone will fall in love with the singular spirit of Kajillionaire, but the film still wins because it’s not really trying to sell what’s been done before. It’s selling openness to a type of person who can only express themselves through what they’ve known and/or how they want to be known. Old Dolio is somehow none of us, yet all of us at the same time. You can’t refund a personality the same way you can refund the family who shaped you. One can only pull off a heist over their own destiny, and who they get to share their future with.
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