It would be an understatement to categorize Miranda July‘s films as whimsical. Her debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know is filled with plenty of irreverent, peculiar moments such as the introduction of “))<>((” — a weird emoticon to express “Pooping back and forth. Forever.” Then in her sophomore feature The Future, she literally uses a cat to narrate some parts of the story (yes, you heard that correctly).
July‘s latest, Kajillionaire, is no different. It’s full of strange occurrences like a wall that leaks pastel-colored bubbles every few hours or a scene where we can’t see a thing but a speck of “dust.” But underneath that quirkiness, there’s also something irresistibly sweet and even oddly heartbreaking; and it’s easy to understand why. At its core, the movie deals with themes that most people can easily relate to: human needs for connection and the lasting impact of parental neglect. So even when things get more bizarre every minute, Kajillionaire will always find a way to pull you back in and even move your heart a couple of times with its examination of human emotions.
Meet the Dynes
At the center of the story are the Dynes. A family of three consisting of husband Robert (Richard Jenkins), wife Theresa (Debra Winger), and a 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), the Dynes have built their lives as dedicated but unskilled grifters. In fact, we first meet them as they’re about to do one of their cons, with Old Dolio leading the action, in an oversized tracksuit and a long, straight hair masking most parts of her face. The target? Other people’s post office boxes; perhaps hoping they can find a check or a watch or something they can sell.
When they’re not busy stealing or scamming people, the Dynes spend their time avoiding Stovik Mann (Mark Ivanir), the man who rents them a small office space they now call home, cause apparently, they are three months behind on rent. In an attempt to collect more money, Old Dolio proposes a new scheme involving airline insurance and lost luggage. And this is where the charming Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) enters the picture and turns the Dynes’, especially Old Dolio’s, lives upside down.
At first, Melanie is just curious and excited to join the Dynes’ little cult; she even comes up with a new heist to help them get more money to pay for the rent. But her presence in the Dynes’ orbit slowly makes Old Dolio’s envious, especially after she witnesses that her mom, who’s never once told her “I love you,” or shown any sign of affection to her, is actually capable of caring for other people — in this case, Melanie. Throughout the first half of the movie, Kajillionaire closely observes Old Dolio’s attempt of understanding these new, strange feelings called jealousy she’s unable to process or articulate. And it’s at this moment, where the movie gets most of its heartbreaking moments, examining Old Dolio’s emotions and pushing her to grow beyond her family limitations without losing July‘s idiosyncratic touch.
Old Dolio’s growth from someone who doesn’t know what real love is to a woman who finally understands that there’s something magical and beautiful beyond the cage her parents put her into is the main core of Kajillionaire, and July always makes sure to follow her coming-of-age process with sincerity and heart even when strange things keep happening in the movie. But what eventually makes Old Dolio’s journey even more moving is Wood‘s amazing portrayal of her. When the movie begins, Old Dolio is so rigid it’s easy to mistake her for a robot instead of a human being. But as the movie unfolds, and as Old Dolio is starting to realize what’s been missing in her life, Wood is able to provide a sense of vulnerability and sadness to her character in a way that is always subtle but also powerful.
As Old Dolio’s foil, Rodriguez‘s performance as Melanie, who is the complete opposite of the other characters populating the movie, is never out of place or overpowering. Her charm and bubbly personality somehow fit right into this world. And anytime she and Wood share a scene together, the movie gets more tender. This is not just a testament to both these actors, but also to July‘s direction, which is always full of compassion. She cares about the characters, and their journeys and growth as much as she cares about the craft and the eccentric parts of the movie. And that’s what, in the end, makes Kajillionaire so lovely. After all, it’s a moving human tale first and foremost.
Finding the Heartbreak and the Catharsis
While the bond between Old Dolio and Melanie is where Kajillionaire‘s heart is, the toxic relationship within the Dynes is also never missed by July. Right from the get-go, it’s easy to see that the Dynes isn’t like a “normal” family; they’re dysfunctional but not in a cute way. Their relationship never appears to be built on love. It’s always been business between them. No matter how much Old Dolio wants something more parent-ly from Robert and Theresa, their top priority will always be survival first and money second.
It’s obvious this shallow-minded way of life has affected the way Old Dolio views the world. She mistakes transactions for affection. When Melanie offers her a drink, Old Dolio tries to pay her back, assuming that nothing is ever free in the world. “We always split everything three ways,” Old Dolio says after Melanie asks her what she thinks of her parents. It’s not until Old Dolio discovers that what her parents do to her is wrong that she knows how to move forward; how to see the world from a bigger perspective, not as a place where the money is everything, but one where she can find true love and connection.
Through Old Dolio’s relationship with her parents, Kajillionaire offers us a portrait of what parental neglect can do to a person, and how cathartic and liberating it is to finally break free from the toxic cycle parents can put their child into. Robert and Theresa may be physically present in Old Dolio’s life for almost three decades, but it doesn’t mean their presences bring happiness to her. If anything, it’s by putting a distance between her and them, and getting close to Melanie that Old Dolio is finally able to heal, to learn how to care for other people. Her journey of understanding what real love actually is may still be far from over, and for sure, it’s not going be easy. But at least, Old Dolio knows that, at the end of the day, she’s not alone, and that there’s someone who genuinely cares about her by her side.
Much like July‘s previous features, Kajillionaire is a movie full of bizarre and eccentric moments. But deep down, what July offers here is a tender and moving story about love and our needs for connection, with a phenomenal performance from Wood leading the journey from start to finish. To find someone who loves and treasures us, as the movie affirms, is always beautiful and worth trying no matter how hard it is. And that’s what Kajillionaire wants us to always remember in the end.
What do you think of the ending? Let us know in the comments below!
Kajillionaire is now playing in select theaters and VOD.
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