By Nadia Dalimonte
Evan Rachel Wood in Kajillionaire (2020)
From writer/director Miranda July, Kajillionaire is a wonderfully offbeat story of unexpected human connections and bonds. July’s comedic drama paints a moving picture of con artists, reparenting, romance, and rebirth. At the center of the story is a peculiar family - con-artists Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). They all live in a leaky one-bedroom office/apartment in a bubble factory. Robert and Theresa have spent years training their only child to scam and cheat at every opportunity. Old Dolio learned how to forge before she knew how to write. They are determined not to let her fall into the societal trappings of dreaming for more. “Most people want to be kajillionaires…that’s the dream”, Robert says. “That’s how they get you.”
The scams are small at first (stealing mail; “finding” lost items in the hopes of being rewarded). When the family are given 2 weeks to make up months of rent, however, they are pushed into a $1500 corner. During a desperate heist to pay the rent, they charm a stranger into joining them, only to glide into unexpectedly personal encounters along the way. The film is an emotional heist story unlike any mission impossible. July creates a family of characters who have a detached view of life and so for them, letting go comes easily. They can leave people, places, and things behind without any form of innate personal attachment pulling the strings. But that all changes with the stranger encounter from a hastily planned heist. The plan: fly to New York together, fly back as strangers, and claim a lost baggage fee for Old Dolio’s “missing” luggage. Robert forces small talk to get through turbulence, one of few hints at who he is as a person. Old Dolio’s parents are mysterious figures; it’s unclear what their backstories are and how they came to live the way they do. But not knowing adds to the appeal of these characters, the actors’ performances, and the film. July plays on the unknown so well. Jenkins, Winger, and Wood are wonderful in their roles. Something about this world pulled me in and I can’t explain why.
While on the plane, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a talkative eyewear salesperson who is in her own way entranced by the family. As Old Dolio reluctantly watches on from a few seats behind, her parents manage to bring Melanie into the scam, and Melanie is game. When the heist falls short upon landing - the lost baggage cheque could take as long as 6 weeks to arrive - Melanie comes up with an idea. Visit her elderly clients and coerce them into selling their antiques, which the family can then resell. Melanie comes out of nowhere almost as a knight in shining armor, not particularly for the family but for Old Dolio, whose reluctance to let her in is met with Melanie insisting on getting closer. The relationship is an intriguing dance of emotional tension that plays out brilliantly the closer they come to a personal understanding.
Old Dolio expresses herself in such a guttural way, often reacting in sound and movement. Evan Rachel Wood does such a wonderful job at playing this character from the inside out. Everything she does is a reflection of her mental state of mind. Her wishful yet detached thinking is the beating heart of the story. From Old Dolio’s point of view, life is neither here nor there. Instead of having grown attached to life, she’s ready for when her time is up, which could be any given moment. There’s a standout sequence that takes place at one of Melanie’s elderly client’s home. Abe, a no-show for his glasses pickup, lives alone on his deathbed. Melanie and the family trio arrive to a shell of a home, and Abe has some requests to make things seem alive again. Abe and Old Dolio share a moment together, as a result of a new plan the family hatch when the antique selling goes kaput: look for elderly people’s cheque books, forge the signatures and cash the cheques. Unbeknownst to all, he’s dying, and doesn’t want to do so alone. So Old Dolio stays with him, assuring him it’s okay to let go, because life is nothing. He wants them to watch TV, clink silverware, and make small talk. Old Dolio and her parents play house, which feels clearly like a put-on as these characters are not used to the cozy ‘How was your day, sweetheart?’ setting. In fact, her parents don’t call her sweetheart, or hon, or any comforting words. They’re quicker exhibiting such behaviour to Melanie, a stranger, than to their daughter. So the gravitational pull that happens between her and Melanie begins to chip away at Old Dolio’s sense of duty to her family.
What makes Kajillionaire work so well is its depiction of unexpected connections between people, and the wave of emotions that are conjured up in response. July touches brilliantly on themes of birth and rebirth, parenting and reparenting, another chance at living within the one life we get, and the pangs of regret from not getting it right the first time. A gorgeous, evocative score by Emile Mosseri compliments the story perfectly. Another standout sequence, in the final act of the film, is a family dinner scene which comes after an unfortunate truth about Old Dolio’s parents is revealed (or rather, reinforced). Robert gives a rare glimpse into his emotional regret that he and Theresa didn’t treat their daughter like a child during her childhood. While the love that exists between Old Dolio and her parents is not expressed, she has internalized their way of loving. “We can only ever be how we are,” she says as if speaking for them, “but we love you, and we wish you well.” I felt a part of the con from the beginning up until the very last scene of the film.