Sundance Film Review: Kajillionare
Sundance Film Festival
Director: Miranda July
I love a film with a homely, graceless family. Representations of these kinds of families allow us to intuit and dissect the ebbs and flows of a story on a heightened emotional level because they’re almost universally relatable. Potently in this vein, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire weaves protagonist Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) into a life of con artistry and emotional neglect. Her parents, Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins, Step Brothers) Dyne, have inculcated a con-job-to-job work ethic into Old Dolio, and “split three ways” all the money they bamboozle from anyone they can. Late on rent, they need to make more than $1,500 fast, and Old Dolio’s got a baggage-claim scam she’s brewed up.
On the flight, Robert and Theresa meet the bubbly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Jane the Virgin), of whom Old Dolio quickly becomes jealous on account of her parents letting her join them. Old Dolio discovers that the airline may take up to six weeks to shovel out the $1,500 for her “lost” baggage, and Melanie is quick to pitch them on scams she’s thought of to get in on some of the fast dollars with them. As the odd lot stumble in on an opportunity at a jacuzzi retailer, it becomes clear where (some of) Old Dolio’s rigidness is coming from with respect to Melanie, whose outfits show off a lot of skin.
Kajillionaire had my jaw dropped with a smile. There’s nothing outrageous, but it’s the small details, such as the way July/Wood portray Old Dolio. Wood acted with her natural speaking voice (which July revealed she’d had vocal training to sublimate at the film’s first Sundance SLC screening), which is at an almost comically low vocal register. She wears a baggy jumpsuit day in and day out and has long, straight hair, almost resembling Budnick from Salute Your Shorts (sans the mullet). Her parents have trained her how to drop, roll and avert cameras when stealing mail at the post office. While her character study is crucial for the film, it’s a launchpad for a larger emotional catharsis that hinges on Old Dolio realizing that she and Melanie haven’t died in a dirty gas-station bathroom during an L.A. earthquake. The story feels fully fleshed out, and July and company achieve a significant emotional resonance through this transformation.
In the post-film Q&A discussion at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, July revealed that she carries a scarcity in her that shows up in her work. In Kajillionaire, this manifests as a scarcity of love for Old Dolio. Old Dolio’s stunted growth into a guarded adult woman makes for some tension as we sympathize with her homespun disposition. We all know this kid at some time or another, except Old Dolio is a 26-year-old with Stockholm syndrome for her parents, who treat her like an employee. This is a coming-of-age story, but it’s host to a queer, sideways growth wherein an adult already accustomed to lacking possessions and who barely has a home doesn’t know that she needs more than a routine for survival. Hence, Melanie furnishes Old Dolio—and the story—a satiating excess that can’t be bought. (Continues below.)
It speaks for itself that Sundance added an additional screening for Kajillionaire. This feature maintains July’s simple storytelling with layers of meaning that burrow their ways into our sentiments. Hats off to the leads for stellar performances in this film. July’s authenticity and cleverness are on full display in Kajillionaire. –Alexander Ortega
Jan. 28 // 6:30 p.m // Library Center Theatre
Jan. 29 // 6:00 p.m // Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room
Feb. 1 // 12:15 p.m // Eccles Theatre Park City
Read more of SLUG’s comprehensive coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.