Stories about con artist families speak to desperate times, and we’re apparently living through them, because each of the last three years have brought new cinematic entries to the genre. First came Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate “Shoplifters,” followed by Bong Joon Ho’s zany “Parasite,” both of which centered on offspring wondering if their family values might be off-kilter. Now comes Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire,” a minor-key sketch of a movie with soulful undercurrents that sneak into a cynical plot as its principle character wises up.
Elevated by an extraordinary Evan Rachel Wood performance that finds her character literally discovering her free will, “Kajillionaire” splits the difference between “Shoplifters” and “Parasite”: It’s an understated dramedy with bite, oscillating from the implication that family bonds are bullshit to the conclusion that everybody deserves a little tough love.
It’s been 15 years since July’s acclaimed debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and nine since “The Future,” but the prolific multimedia performance artist has maintained a striking clarity of vision during that time. “Kajillionajre” shows no grand ambition to upend July’s penchant for small-scale stories about awkward introverts and their struggles to connect with the world around them. This time, however, the con artist concept provides a more grounded framework for roving thematic exploration, and builds to an intimate payoff as only this filmmaker could pull off.
The story centers on the struggling Dyne family, headed by Robert (a disheveled Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger, wizened and wide-eyed). Their daughter has a ridiculous name that speaks to her parents’ eccentric past, but Old Dolio Dyne (Wood) doesn’t know a thing about that; an awkward, lanky woman barely capable of eye contact, she lives wholly within the confines of the grifter lifestyle that dictates her existence.
For the Dynes, each day makes for a peculiar survival story, as they roam the streets of Los Angeles chasing two-bit scams in an ongoing quest to make rent at the ramshackle bubble factory where they rent out an abandoned office space. Their home adds a surreal dimension to July’s previous explorations of domestic life, as pink foam from the factory routinely oozes across their walls and their living room is comprised of unkempt cubicles.
The Dynes control every facet of Old Dolio’s life, but their situation has already grown unsustainable, with their kooky landlord giving them a week to make rent or else they’re out on the street. Fortunately, the Dynes have trained Old Dolio well — “she learned to forget before she could read or write,” her father beams — and she quickly proposes a solution: One speedy roundtrip flight to New York and back yields a stolen luggage scheme and travel insurance to get them out of their jam. But in the midst of their absurd plot, the family’s tight-knit routine gets complicated when Old Dolio’s parents meet the kooky Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on their flight and decide on a whim to bring her into their clan.
An ebullient young woman eager to get a cut of the Dynes’ next scam, Melanie raises Old Dolio’s suspicions from the outset, in part because she feels threatened by the very presence of a stranger in her life. But Melanie quickly offers up her own resources for financial gain: By selling bifocals to elderly clients barely cognizant of their surroundings, Melanie is able to bring her accomplices into the old folks’ homes to swindle their checkbooks.
This concept yields a pair of odd sequences, including one prolonged bit involving a dying man eager to have his invaders help him along to the grave. In July’s quirky hands, the encounter is somehow both touching and ridiculous, as the Dynes engage in an improv comedy routine to deceive their mark while he slowly drifts away. Nobody feels particularly good about it, but for Old Dolio, it’s the first indication that she may have deeper feelings than she knows how to express. And Melanie, whose initial presence in the movie feels like a gimmick, gradually takes an interest in helping the woman out of her shell.
July eschews bold stylistic gestures for a quieter accumulation of meaningful exchanges, but there’s an undeniable cosmic energy simmering just beneath the surface of many scenes. In a blunt device that grows more substantial with time, July hints at that idea with recurring L.A. earthquakes that routinely cause the anxious Dynes to fear for their lives, a recurring trope that reaches a remarkable cosmic twist in the movie’s closing act. The ground shakes once more and suddenly Old Dolio wakes up: Having established her as an embodiment of her parents’ pessimism, it allows her to embrace the risk of expressing her own convictions, and the movie comes alive with her.
“Kajillionaire” turns on the subtle rhythms of Emilie Mosseri’s score and a bright, sun-soaked palette that strikes an ironic juxtaposition with some of the darker developments. But its true engine is Wood, tasked with the unique challenge of playing a woman who “doesn’t know anything about tender feelings” and shrinks into her body on default. It’s a fascinating variation on the wild-child concept, made all the more distinctive by the urban sprawl that surrounds her.
It’s also clearly a role that July herself might have played at an earlier stage in her career, and she’s given it to an actress who seems to have a knack for muted physical transformations, given her ongoing gig as a sentient robot on HBO’s “Westworld.” In “Kajillionajre,” she also plays a woman coming to grips with her programming and learning how to push beyond it to find herself, though in this case she’s also coming of age. “Kajillionajre” wisely backs away from any melodramatic confrontations, finding a way to conclude its fractured family plot line without overstating its implications.
July’s style is at once cerebral and irreverent, but “Kajillionaire” doesn’t always find the most satisfying way to juggle those dueling tones. However, its spell lingers as July’s biggest concepts take root, and the movie turns from tragic to hopeful at an unlikely moment in tune with the artist’s previous works. Ever since her letter-based performance work “Joanie 4 Jackie,” July has explored the emotional currency of communication, and those themes remain potent here. As Old Dolio explores the prospects of new companionship, “Kajillionaire” isn’t exactly anti-family so much as it celebrates what it means to create one from the ground up.
“Kajillionajre” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.