Admit it—we all think it’d be fun to reenact an Ocean’s 11 heist in real life. To be part of a close-knit team, executing a brilliant score, getting one over on capitalism whether in the form of an evil corporation or a single individual so unfairly rich that you have to make up a word for his net worth. Kajillionaire, writer-director Miranda July’s third feature, punctures that soapy bubble of a fantasy by depicting a trio of amateur scammers whose precarious existence skimming off the top of society is anything but glamorous.
Parents—in the loosest sense of the word—Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (Debra Winger), and their maladjusted twentysomething daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), move through the world on constant alert for anything to trade, scavenge, scrounge, steal, or otherwise make money off of. Theirs is a desperate, pathetic compulsion that’s instantly clear to an outside observer but to them it’s the status quo. It’s tradition. It’s family.
Just like in a heist movie, it takes the introduction of a new partner in effervescent Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) to reveal just how much the Dynes’ dysfunctional survival instincts actually deprive them, but especially Old Dolio, of anything resembling a stable life. July grounds these eccentric characters—especially Wood’s performance, which promises to be a career high—in a poignant tale that asks: If life hands you a bad family, can you exchange it for something better?
With their baggy clothes and the women’s waist-length, ragged hair that looks as if it has never seen a pair of scissors, the Dynes initially appear like escapees of some minor cult. But instead of a prophet or apocalypse, they worship the impossible dream of making as much money as possible through as little effort as necessary. “Most people want to be kajillionaires,” fidgety patriarch Robert lectures Old Dolio early on. “That’s the dream, that’s how they get you hooked.” It’s a suspect rationalization from a man whose schemes are so small-time that his family are never doing more than scraping by, trapped in some warped American Dream about tricking their way to wealth. Their existence is a constant teeter between the end of all things and their lives finally beginning.
July evokes this ethereality through the whimsical imagery of the laundromat (with which they share a wall as illegal tenants) constantly overflowing with millennial-pink suds, as well as a sequence set entirely in the dark but for silvery dust particles, in which Old Dolio is convinced that she has indeed finally died. She somewhat welcomes the experience, because at least it would put a period on her hard-scrabble life.
What she gets instead is a semi-colon in the form of Melanie, a bright young thing who combines the eagerness of Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell with the so-dazzling-it’s-distracting smile of Julia Roberts’ Tess Ocean. And wouldn’t you know it, with her boring day job punctuated by too much attention from her own mother, Melanie would love to pretend she’s in the latest Ocean’s sequel. Instead the interloper explodes the Dynes’ dynamic from the inside out.
At first, it seems as if the uncharismatic yet self-important Robert is holding his wife and daughter hostage with his compulsive behavior and strictly-regimented commands. But it soon becomes clear that Theresa is just as emotionally abusive to Old Dolio, perhaps more so by dint of being a potential female role model who instead seems baffled that she be expected to show any maternal instinct. “I can’t just say it,” Theresa snaps at Old Dolio in one of the film’s most gut-hollowing moments. “You want us to be all fakey people.” Yet the awful irony is that Theresa has no problem faking affection for Melanie.
Because of course, Kajillionaire isn’t really about scammers. Despite their petty criminal M.O., the Dynes are the blueprint for any toxic family: Despite the seeming equality of splitting their meager winnings three ways (and then going in equally on the next hustle), they cheat their daughter of her childhood yet withhold the reward of adulthood and being treated as a peer. They are narcissists, who brought up their child in their twisted image, and cannot bear the thought of her breaking out of their own broken patterns. Their every interaction is transactional. Old Dolio, whose name was part of a failed swindle, is constantly reminded of her value to them, and how little she is actually worth to her own flesh and blood.
So instead of mere money, what Melanie steals is the Dynes’ cult-like influence over Old Dolio and what she gifts her is the opportunity to build a life beyond the Dynes’ impossible dream. For all that Rodriguez carefully plays Melanie’s comfort in her own skin, and her every microexpression as she too realizes her worth to the Dynes, she is ultimately playing off Wood’s bravura performance. It’s not just a matter of a rangy wig and baggy clothes, of building physical layers while showing how much this young woman has been stripped of social intelligence and empathy and imagination. The utter skill to embody all that Old Dolio lacks, and still make her a hopeful creature, demonstrates a masterful pairing between Wood’s performance and July’s penetrating commentary.
It’s been a weird year, but regardless of what world this would have come out in, Kajillionaire is one of the best films of 2020.
Kajillionaire is in theaters now.