A bold rediscovery of the hidden of gems of ordinary life
Ideological movements on both the right and left of the political spectrum are becoming more and more “anti-society.” These seek to condemn the stagnated state of the world, in how it is obsessed with consumption and dehumanizes people. Such a perspective has gone to particular extremes in these more polarized times, with many calling for the tearing down of the entire system, blaming it as a root for all the world’s problems. Along comes a small film, Kajillionaire (2020), which seeks to explore and disprove this theory with a quirky indie tone.
Kajillionaire is only the third feature film from Miranda July, and the first feature-length one in nine years. The film follows the unconventional family of Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Old Dolio was named after a homeless man who won the lottery in hopes that he would leave his namesake some inheritance. No such luck it turns out. Robert and Theresa have brought up Old Dolio with an anti-societal mentality: rejecting work, conventional upbringing, and even a regular show of emotion. They live in a room rented out from a bubble factory, where pink foam frequently seeps in through the walls. Robert and Theresa use their daughter to pull off small cons: stealing mail, refunding stolen goods, stealing luggage and cashing on traveler’s insurance, etc. However, the family soon bumps into the sprightly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) whose normalcy might just throw the entire family’s dynamic into disarray.
Kajillionaire is fascinating in how it looks into our materialistic and transactional culture from a cynical point of view, thanks to the characters of Robert and Theresa. By rejecting society and its supposed faux attitudes and customs, the main family has become solely characterized by the transactional and materialistic attitudes that they so seemed to abhor. Every second of their lives is dedicated to scraping extra bucks to stay afloat, and they treat (and even call themselves) “assets.” At one point Old Dolio, coming to a slow realization of what her upbringing has deprived her of, notes how her parents have never even called her “honey,” “sweety,” or any other kind derivative. The film sets up its cynical characters for its first half of the runtime, using a quirky comedy that July has been adept at using before. It is in the second half that a transition, and Old Dolio’s enlightenment, into the pleasures and wonders in our current “abhorred” society is explored.
Kajillionaire is not a film revendicating capitalism, consumerism, or any of the other ideological aspects of the West; rather it is seeking to show that society is really in the details and interactions between people. In one scene, our family is robbing a dying, bed-ridden old man’s house. The old man, on his deathbed, doesn’t request them to stop, rather to make noise and pretend the house is being lived in, so as to not feel lonely in his final moments. The burgling family complies and brings about a bizarre and equally sweet moment that perfectly encapsulates the intersectionality of tone and themes July seeks. Melanie’s character proves to be a reintroduction for many cynical viewers themselves to the beauty and fun of life that many of us have ignored or forgotten; from the simple act of making pancakes, of complimenting each other, or dancing.
The film does carry a delicate tone that could have gone sideways had July’s cast failed to grasp it correctly. However, July can be proud of putting together a perfect lineup of performers. Winger and Jenkins are stellar as the parents, perfectly bringing to light the simultaneous coldness, hilarity, and irony to their character motivations. Rodriguez, who continues to be criminally underused in Hollywood, expertly captures the perfection of normalcy with her character, proving to be the guiding light for the film’s core themes. But Kajillionaire is Rachel Wood’s film. The American actress dives into one of the most ambiguous performances in recent years. Old Dolio and her alienation from society, parents, and herself has forced her into a confusing lack of identity; how does an actor showcase that? Between July and Rachel Wood, Old Dolio seems to be at a crossroads, in terms of her gender and her age. Rachel Wood dons a bored skater-bro tone and posture, which while hilarious at first, quickly turns out to be tragic and sad. As Old Dolio slowly gravitates towards herself, Rachel Wood drifts a true personality and attitude into the character, almost imperceptibly and yet crucial to her character’s arc. Given the seeming goofy nature of some scenes, these sly and specific performances risk being ignored or underappreciated; the difficulty of pulling off this feat is something that should be commended and admired.
The film does seem to struggle with how it motivates or pushes its narrative and characters forward. July, who also wrote the film, can’t seem to find an organic flow to her story, and instead needs to jolt or swerve the story with unnatural phone calls and earthquakes that are just a little too convenient for the story’s progression. This makes certain characters changes seem abrupt, and makes some emotional conclusions blunt their potential dramatic effect.
In the end, Kajillionaire proves to be a sweet, unusual, and bold look into the anti-societal movements, and how blinding this perspective can prove to be. July achieves a truly difficult tone and feat, aided by an expert cast. To turn around and appreciate the things and life that we have now, is the true way to be at peace and happy with oneself. That is not to say that one should be a conformist, quite the contrary, one simply mustn’t forget that life’s most important things are right within our reach.