November 2020

Noted

‘Kajillionaire’ directed by Miranda July

By Craig Mathieson
Image from ‘Kajillionaire’
A family of con artists are the American writer-director’s latest offbeat protagonists in a surreal but heartfelt film

A limber petty thief and dedicated scammer who can recite security-camera protocols with the focus of a Talmudic scholar, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is the 21st-century model of American individualism. Raised by her manipulative parents, Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), as a business associate and not a child, she bounces around Los Angeles as the point woman in their grifts and the recipient of their conspiracy paranoia. Even the name Old Dolio was born from a con that went wrong.

Bending her body to avoid an expectant landlord but otherwise deliberately shapeless, gruff Old Dolio fits the lineage that writer and director Miranda July has forged in her previous independent features: offbeat protagonists at odds with the world, affectless and self-contained. In 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and 2011’s The Future, that outlook felt idiosyncratic and even precious, but the times have coalesced with this multidisciplinary artist’s philosophy. Kajillionaire is both sublimely funny and deceptively heartfelt. In an end-of-the-road age, Old Dolio is a fitting heroine, an unwitting pawn who intuitively wants something more than a disinformation campaign.

With precise framing and flashes of deadpan surrealism, July sketches Old Dolio and her parents’ life with a detached assurance that warps you to their cruel dynamic. Onlookers and marks alike are perplexed but not alarmed by the trio’s grasping greed – they’re a down-at-heel reflection of the Trump clan’s shamelessness – and it’s only when Old Dolio is paid $20 to take a young woman’s place at a positive parenting seminar and sees documentary evidence of the maternal bond that she starts to yearn for nurturing love instead of a three-way split of the proceeds.

Robert’s cuckoo cosmology has him fearing smartphones and California’s “big one” earthquake, but what upends the family is Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an ebullient shop assistant so desperate for change she plays along with their schemes. Melanie’s self-loathing asserts itself in sharply soulful ways that July has never captured before, and both Rodriguez and Wood (who has spent the past few years playing a paranoid android in the HBO series Westworld) find a tender connection that reaches from the quotidian to the wondrous while setting up a generational divide between them and the avaricious baby boomers.

The physical heists in Kajillionaire (in cinemas) are minor, but the film’s emotional scores resonate. It is a breakthrough for July, with its examination of birth, death and rebirth – flavoured by unblinking flourishes such as the trio’s Looney Tunes living space – opening up possibilities for both her and her creations. The performances that Old Dolio and her parents give when on the make have a whimsical, improvised streak that reflects stark realities about neglect and freedom. In a film full of con jobs, Kajillionaire impressively digs down to bedrock truths.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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