Multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker Miranda July first made her mark through self-produced plays, performance art and riot grrrl ‘zines. Her body of work has consistently featured explorations of human relationships, and her newest feature film, Kajillionaire, is no exception. Arriving at a time when many people are starved for human connection, closeness and physical touch, her quirky examination of neglected children and self-centered parents conveys a yearning that most of us can relate to.
Set in modern-day Los Angeles — complete with its constant earthquake tremors but minus the steady haze from wildfires — Kajillionaire tells the story of the Dyne family, a dysfunctional trio of grifters. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) plays along with the schemes and swindles devised by her parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins), stealing mail, impersonating others and planning small-scale cons in order to dig up rent money for their dilapidated “apartment.” The ambiance of this lodging is peak July: a dimly lit office space full of cubicles that shares a wall with a soap factory, from which pink suds ooze down each afternoon and must be promptly cleaned by the Dynes as part of their lease agreement.
Despite her crucial role in every grift, Old Dolio — whose namesake story is a doozy — only reaps meager rewards (always “split three ways”). And her parents — who live the way they do in contrast to a society that they see as wasting time in pursuit of wealth in the titular amounts — hold back on any sign of affection toward her. But July’s deep dive into humanity gets going fully once the trio, in the midst of a con involving lost airline luggage, is joined by an outgoing 20-something named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez).
As Old Dolio’s parents begin to dote on the new addition, their daughter begins to awaken to her lifelong familial coldness. As Melanie bears witness to this revelation, she shifts her focus to Old Dolio, making increasingly grand gestures to show her the warmth that she’s been missing. The relationship between the two young women remains the focus of the third act and is the movie’s true highlight.
The brilliant, idiosyncratic performances by Rodriguez and Wood steer the film but are in no way Kajillionaire‘s only assets. The original score by Emile Mosseri (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) proves especially important, providing vibrant emotional cues in moments bereft of dialogue and, in one critical moment, devoid of light. The framing of each shot is pure eye candy, and though the actions that fill them are decidedly offbeat, they’re far more accessible and toned down than any of July’s past works.
Available to rent starting Oct. 16 via Amazon Video, iTunes, and other streaming services