‘Kajillionaire’: Film Review | Sundance 2020

Miranda July’s third feature, ‘Kajillionaire,’ focuses on a family of small-stakes grifters who get their horizons broadened by a stranger.

The way the patriarch of the Dyne clan sees it, we all choose one of two paths. We can “skim” — that is, eke out a living via petty crime and the kind of cheapskate tricks even the poor find ridiculous — or can embrace the dream of becoming a kajillionaire, buying into every consumer addiction They tell you is a prerequisite for success. His disdain for the latter path is not misguided — like a lot of misanthropic crackpots, he sees some things clearly — but skimming is no way to live, and certainly no way to raise a child. Not one likely to understand what it is to be human, anyway. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is a beautiful and strange look at how the three Dynes have their skimming life shaken up (figuratively and literally) when a stranger sees them clearly. It’s also about the need for warmth and human connection; and anyone who believes that need was expressed in a singularly affecting way by July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know should probably just stop reading this now and make plans to see this aptly titled new film.

The Dynes are Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). If anybody tries to explain that name to you, don’t let them. Dressed in oversized clothes, wearing her hair in the long, untended style her mother favors, Old Dolio has the vocal mannerisms and body language of an outcast teenage boy. In terms of emotional development, she’s probably even less mature than that.

The Bottom Line

A prickly little gem by a singular artist.

We meet them during a tiny scam involving post office boxes. They make next to nothing with this ritual, but the sequence offers the first of several casually arresting images the film has in store. Then it’s back home: To an abandoned, cubicle-stuffed office adjoining an unusual sort of factory. The rent is just $500, but keeping the place habitable requires a kooky, Sisyphean chore. As low as the rent is, they’re three months behind.

Old Dolio hatches a clever way to make quick (she thinks) cash. It requires the family to take a round trip to New York, during which we learn that the Dynes are no fans of turbulence. It’s too much like the tremors they endure in Los Angeles, each of which they fear will be the big one. But the trip earns them more than expected: On the way home they meet a beautiful physician’s assistant, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who seems not at all put off by their strange habits. By the time the plane lands, Robert and Theresa are confiding in her like the daughter they never had. Old Dolio is confused and jealous. But Melanie eagerly asks to become part of the gang (she confuses their little scams with Ocean’s Eleven-style heists), and knows a way they might take advantage of the elderly.

If the first of these visits to shut-ins is a straightforward way to show just how heartless the older Dynes can be, the second is the kind of sequence few filmmakers would imagine: Exploitation and compassion blend in funny and almost heartbreaking ways. Old Dolio’s lack of lived experience transmutes into a kind of Buddhist wisdom; the family briefly gets to play-act at normalcy; everyone sees that, in disruptive ways, Melanie is different from them. Something is set in motion that will play out for the rest of the film.

As with the source of Old Dolio’s name, the nature of this fallout is better experienced firsthand. Even explaining how July does a certain kind of thing better than any film in recent memory might spoil the deep pleasure of watching that thing unfold, and the counterweight pleasure of worrying that it won’t. Rodriguez makes an ideal foil for this emotionally strangled family, amused by their naiveté but clearly needing some undefined thing they can bring to her life. Wood is remarkable, finding something soulful beneath the layers of armor this mistreated young woman wears.

As for Jenkins and Winger, one might daydream for a second of July becoming a franchise-minded filmmaker, spinning off some little prequel that allows us to enjoy the Dynes’ grouchiness and penny-ante schemes without needing to contend with the moral and emotional ramifications. But once you start getting greedy like that, you might as well start plotting to become a kajillionaire. And whatever completely new idea she has next will probably be better than what you’re imagining, anyway.

Production company: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger
Director-screenwriter: Miranda July
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Youree Henley
Executive producers:
Director of photography: Sebastian Wintero
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Jennifer Johnson
Editor: Jennifer Vecchiarello
Composer: Emile Mosseri
Casting director: Mark Bennett
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: UTA

Rated R, 104 minutes