Dir: Miranda July. Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins. 12A cert, 105 mins
Miranda July’s films are miniature fairytales played out of tune – whimsical and sweet, with a tartness right at their centre. In her 2005 debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, she introduced us to the concept of “))<>((”, an emoticon that translates to “pooping back and forth, forever”. In 2011’s The Future, she provided the shrill, gargling voice of a sick cat adopted by an emotionally static couple. In her latest, Kajillionaire, a moving curio about a family of grifters, she keeps circling back to the same image: a line of pastel pink soap suds, dripping down the wall of a basement office – a daily occurrence for her protagonists, who have set up camp underneath a bubble factory.
The world inside of July’s head looks essentially like our own. It’s a little brighter, perhaps; a little more symmetrical. But emotions work differently here – they’re repressed, yes, but always scratching up at the surface like rats below the floorboards. Occasionally, they spill out in odd and arresting ways. The manager of the bubble factory can’t stop crying. “I have no filters!” he declares, in between whinnying sobs. Kajillionaire is a beautiful, deeply empathetic film – it’s July’s best yet, perfectly balancing the director’s irrepressible earnestness with a psychoanalytical need to understand how human bonds are formed and maintained.
For Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (Debra Winger), petty crime is both a lifestyle and philosophy. They’ve steeped their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), in all its little deceptions and delusions. Her name isn’t even her own – it belongs to a homeless man who won the lottery and died before he could write her into his will. Somehow, she still does everything her parents ask. She’ll duck and roll to dodge security cameras; she’ll dress up like a schoolgirl and return stolen watches, waiting by patiently for a reward. Then the Dynes bump into Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, effervescent), an optician’s assistant who’s irritatingly well adjusted. Robert and Theresa are drawn in by her flattery – what a relief to find someone with such respect for their art. Melanie imagines she’ll be able to create her own personal Ocean’s 11.
Old Dolio, a lanky string bean of a person, seems stuck in eternal teenagehood. She’s 26, but has successfully hidden herself away behind baggy clothes, poker-straight hair, and a low, surfer bro drone. On occasion, the disguise drops for a moment, and we’re struck by the icy-blue brilliance of Wood’s eyes. The actor’s always been a soulful presence – here, she reminds us that what is “weird” and “quirky” can so often merely be misinterpreted sadness. Her parents never treated her like a child. There were no pet names, no birthday presents. She’s a co-worker, first and foremost, and so never had any compulsion to grow or change as a person.
Richard is filled with grand theories – society is “hooked on sugar, hooked on coffee, hahaha, cry cry cry”; people all want to become “kajillionaires”; the “Big One”, the earthquake that may one day turn Los Angeles into rubble, is right around the corner. He’s managed to create a miniature cult out of his own family. Melanie may have her own issues (her mother can be a little overprotective) but, to Old Dolio, she’s someone who can finally give affection without transaction, as July lets their relationship blossom – beautifully, tentatively – from rivals to friends, to something more. To them, and to us, it’s like watching all the world’s doors fling open at once.