Kajillionaire (Focus Features, R)

The pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown did away with a lot of what used to be considered normal life—adults going to their jobs, kids going to school, people visiting friends and relatives, eating in restaurants, and just basically living a sociable life in the non-virtual world—which may make this the perfect moment for Miranda July’s Kajillionaire.

The focus of the story, such as it is (this is a Miranda July movie, after all), is a family of small-time grifters surviving on the fringes of the sort of normal life that most people take for granted. On the face of it, the Dynes are a traditional nuclear family, consisting of father Robert (Richard Jenkins), mother Theresa (Debra Winger), and daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Like any good nuclear family, they exist as a self-contained unit within a major city (Los Angeles), whose very size and diversity coincidentally provides them with camouflage.

The Dynes also work together at their family business—which in this case is committing various scams that keep them financially afloat while not taking so much at any one time as to draw serious police attention. Even their living quarters are an unconventional spin on the family homestead, as they share an “apartment” in an abandoned office within a factory, which is subject to periodic invasions of pink foam. So, you could say that their entire existence is really a parody of a conventional American nuclear family, and I dare say that’s no accident.

While Robert and Theresa are committed to their lifestyle (Robert can actually be a bit of a blowhard on the subject), Old Dolio is profoundly depressed, going through the motions (often in a comically frenetic manner) required while simultaneously trying to disappear behind shapeless clothing and a mass of unruly hair. And who can blame her? As we learn over the course of the film, she’s been treated as a means to an end by her parents since birth—even her name was chosen as part of a scam, and her mother states believes any display of affection toward her only child would be phony and fake.

Dysfunctional relationships can continue indefinitely, but they can also end abruptly when one party becomes aware that alternatives exist. In this case, the family dynamic warps temporary to accommodate a fourth scam artist, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). She’s full of bright ideas and is generally everything that Old Dolio is not—present in her own life, making her own choices, and having a great time in the process. Melanie’s presence blows the formerly stable family triangle to bits, and it’s Evan Rachel Wood’s story from here on out, as she delivers a tour de force performance of a young women belatedly coming to life. Earthquakes play a Chekhov’s gun role in the plot of Kajillionaire, but Melanie is the real earthquake in the Dyne family’s existence, leading to a conclusion in which everyone shows their true colors.

The technical details of Kajillionaire are exquisite, as one would expect from a Miranda July film, with the cinematography of Sebastian Winterø deserving particular mention. Through lens selection and palette, he creates a visual world that is just a bit off kilter, but still recognizably related to our own. I know I was in good hands in the opening scene, which features a yellow city bus contrasted against the pastel teal of a post office exterior, and many more visual delights are presented over the course of Kajillionaire.

Miranda July makes movies that are not quite like those of anyone else, and they’re more Marmite than popcorn—so, if you like your movies conventional and/or haven’t liked her previous features, it’s unlikely you’ll care for this one either. But if you are willing to get on her wavelength, then Kajillionaire delivers the kind of rewards that just aren’t on offer in the work of more conventional writers and directors. | Sarah Boslaugh

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