Writer/director Miranda July rocked the indie scene in 2005 with Me and You and Everyone We Know, which she also starred in. It took another six years for July to produce her sophomore feature, The Future. If you think that’s a long wait, July has gone almost a decade without directing another movie. That’s not to say she hasn’t kept busy with other artistic endeavors, most notably writing short story collections and a novel. July is an artist with many different interests. For those who’ve been waiting for her to return to cinema, though, Kajillionaire is a bewildering yet welcome homecoming.
We’ve seen Evan Rachel Wood as a rebellious 13-year-old girl, a hippie, a wrestler’s daughter, a vampire queen, and a sentient android. Wood continues to show off her impeccable range in Kajillionaire. Hidden under a long head of hair and baggy clothes, Wood is practically unrecognizable as Old Dolio Dyne. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger play Old Dolio’s parents, who raised their daughter to be a grifter like them. The family can barely keep a roof over their heads, living next to a bubble factory that leaks through the walls. To make ends meet, they dedicate their days to petty scams that don’t always pay off. To these three, a few hundred bucks is the equivalent to a kajillion dollars.
Old Dolio has spent twenty-six years hunched over with her head hanging low. Her parents treat her less like a daughter and more like a stray dog that they trained to do their bidding. It’s an unconventional depiction of abusive parenting, but one that still rings true. While Old Dolio’s parents show her no affection, they take a quick liking to an outgoing young woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Meeting her on an airplane during an insurance scam, Melanie is unusually drawn to the Dyne family. It isn’t long until they rope Melanie into their scam, treating her like the daughter they never had. This makes Old Dolio jealous, but Melanie might be her key to true happiness.
Rodriguez is a delight in the role, although Melanie often shifts between being street smart and optimistically naive. She’s a hard character to pin down, and the same can be said about the movie itself. For much of its 106 runtime, the audience might not know how to define Kajillionaire. Is it a heist gone wrong film, a quirky dramedy, an understated romance, or all of the above? July leaves us wondering what we’re supposed to feel, which some will find frustrating and meandering. Those who appreciate July’s filmmaking style, however, will be thoroughly eager to see where this strange tale is going. While the final destination is perhaps a little too happy to be fully believable, it is a rewarding ending nonetheless.
July’s direction strikes just the right balance between being bleak and offbeat. A few scenes do admittedly drag on, but if July intended to create an uncomfortable, surreal atmosphere, Kajillionaire succeeds while also getting its message across. At its core, Kajillionaire is about how families work – or how families don’t work in the Dynes’ case. As Melanie shows Old Dolio, though, you can find love and acceptance in the most unlikely places. After you’ve walked a mile in Old Dolio’s shoes, a trip to your next convenience store will feel like heaven on earth.
Kajillionaire is playing in theaters ONLY.