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LFF 2020 Review: Kajillionaire – “A funny, odd, hug of a film”

Miranda July has built a career on exploring the interior worlds of outsiders. Kajillionaire, her third feature, and the first since 2011’s The Future is no exception. But, at the same time, it’s closer to conventional narrative, even if the people within it are anything but.

It tells the story of the Dynes family Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and their oddly-monikered 26-year-old daughter, Old Dolio (a superb Evan Rachel Wood) – a trio of misfit grifters who wander about LA in ill-fitting stolen clothes. They live in the offices below the Bubble, Inc factory, where bubbles oooze down the walls. So far, so recognisably July. But there’s a lot of heart beneath those bubbles. Kajillionaire starts as a daft crime-caper, but what unfolds is a sweet, queer story of romance, friendship, and identity.

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The Dynes’ are petty criminals, in pretty much every sense. Their scams involve postal theft and doorstepping wealthy neighbourhoods. Most of their conversations are tetchy exchanges about the logistics of the next con.

Old Dolio’s relationship with her parents is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Evan Rachel Woods really shines in Kajillionaire. It’s a physical comedy performance that lights up the screen from the start, with a Buster-Keaton like tumble. She is not just uncomfortable in her own skin but in her whole existence. She may be in her mid-late 20s, but she has the slumped, shuffling gait of an awkward teen, and speaks in a low, husky Monotone. She could be Napoleon Dynamite’s lost sibling. This is someone whose parents trained her, rather than raised her, Old Dolio learned how to write by learning to forge handwriting.

Miranda July is lean on exposition. We don’t quite know how the Dynes came to live that way, though Richard’s anti-capitalist, anti-government views are peppered throughout the film – “Most people want to be kajillionares.” “That’s the dream. That’s how they get you hooked. Hooked on sugar. Hooked on caffeine. Ha-ha-ha. Cry, cry, cry. Me, I prefer to just skim”.

Needing the rent money to pay their exasperated, dodgy landlord, the stakes go up for the trio. One of Old Dolio’s postal spoils includes a return trip to NYC, and with it, an opportunity for a fake lost luggage claim.

The sun-bleached hues of LA streets as captured by Sebastian Winterø‘ acts as both the fuzzy-lens Old Dolio sees the world in and contrasts against the washed- out drabness of their clothes.

The film’s setup could easily tip into caricature, but doesn’t. There’s a tonal shift as they head off on their long con. The heart and soul of Kajillionaire really ignites with the introduction of Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Melanie is a similar age to Old Dolio, but is confident, funny, and animated.

Melanie is quickly looped into their fold, and they begin a few grifts as four-piece. The dynamic of mutual-mistrust plays out as they inveigle their way into elderly people’s homes and a hot tub showroom. But, as a few subtler moments reveal, even if the spoils are split equally, the risks aren’t. The stakes are higher for Melanie, getting caught as a young Puerto Rican woman would be worse than it would be for her white partners-in-crime.

It’s in the third act where we really get to see Old Dolio and Melanie. We get the story of how Old Dolio got her strange name. She breaks free of the family dynamic for long enough to experience a taste of ordinary youth for the first time thanks to Melanie – who is drifting and dealing with family in her own way too.

Some of the film’s core themes are especially resonant right now. A lack of connection, understanding, and even touch has been a reality for so many of us in 2020. Go and seek out this funny, odd, hug of a film.

Kajillionaire screened at LFF 2020 and is out in UK cinemas now.

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