'Kajillionaire' Is a Wacky Romp with an Honest Emotional Core

Directed by Miranda July

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger

BY James BrotheridgePublished Sep 28, 2020

A con artist story can sometimes be full of flash and fun. Sometimes they can find desperate characters trying to use their wits to score big and get back on top again. Kajillionaire, the latest from Miranda July, hones in on what we'll accept to maintain human connection. In her eccentric vision, July finds a new view of honesty and builds a film around it in her unique voice. It's entertaining and snappy, but Catch Me If You Can it's not.

The con artistry on display in Kajillionaire is generational, as Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) have inducted their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) into the craft. The name "Old Dolio" sticks out to be sure — it was part of an unsuccessful scam. The duo naming their daughter this on the off chance they can make a score gives a general impression of the kind of flimsy schemes the two drag their offspring into. When we first meet them, Old Dolio's doing unnecessary acrobatics to make her way into a post office to rip off random P.O. boxes, with meagre success.

For all Old Dolio tries to do to impress her parents, they don't seem to notice the effort. Nor do they have any great plans to keep them in their home, a windowless office where bubbles seep through the wall at an appointed time every day. Old Dolio's comes up with an idea to get the money they need. While seeing the new plot through, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a comparatively normal woman intrigued by the notion of con artists and willing to seize on this chance for excitement.

Melanie stands out immediately. Rodriguez is playing someone more recognizably average. This, at least in comparison to Jenkins and Winger's parental pair, who spout out absurdities with the certainty of gospel, or Old Dolio, who'd stand out in any crowd. Rodriguez has quieter moments that her larger-than-life costars, and she uses those to make the audience believe she can hold onto her day job while also becoming embedded in the world of small-time nickel-and-dime scams.

This is Wood's show, though, through sheer force if nothing else. Her voice has an almost guttural affect, a sound that would feel at home as that of a teen boy in a Mike Judge project. Old Dolio, in her track pants, her straight hair past the shoulders, and with that voice, gives the impression of someone whose development was arrested and someone deeply uncomfortable with themselves.

July's movie asks Old Dolio and Wood to go beyond that discomfort, to dig into the roots of her emotional self and consider what could be next for this peculiar character. Wood, in turn, commits entirely, taking a bold set of choices and spinning them into a complete person. Moments where she let her guard down and pretend to have healthy familial connections, as part of a con or not, are overwhelming.

That's part of July's filmmaking magic: taking what in other hands might seem precious and keeping an emotional core that can be cutting and is unfailingly honest. Part of this is achieved through an economy of scripting and story development, with purpose-driven plotting that builds in emotional development naturally.

More than that, though, it's the parent-child relationship and how that's expressed here that July's really hit on. With her specific filmmaking tools, she's able to consider what we demand from those around us, and what it's like to move forward when someone recognizes that in themselves.

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