Note: The writer of this review watched Kajillionaire from home on a digital screener. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
For a litmus test on whether Kajillioniare will spark pastel delight or a case of quirk-induced dyspepsia, look to the foam. It’s one of the more aggressively surreal elements of this latest film from Miranda July, the multi-hyphenate artist who previously wrote and directed Me And You And Everyone We Know and The Future. Every evening, a flood of bubbles the color of Pepto-Bismol leaks through the interior wall of the abandoned office our protagonists call home, prompting a mad scramble as they grab buckets, shovels, and whatever else is within reach to scoop up the downy mess. They literally set their watches to it, which also serves as a neat metaphor for the precision with which July has built the eccentric world of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) and her unsuccessful con artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger). The movie is like a sand art bottle with a hole in it, a shifting palette of carefully chosen colors and patterns that combine and then dissolve in sometimes slippery ways.
The question with films that luxuriate in quirk is always one of underlying emotion. When there’s genuine love and empathy behind it, the most bizarre characterization can be endearing; done with mocking intent, it becomes a freak show. Kajillioniare is of the former ilk, telling a story about the desire for simple human connection through the character of Old Dolio, a childlike 26-year-old who’s as strange as her name. (She was named after a street person who won the lottery, in hopes that she’d be written into his will. It didn’t work.) Old Dolio is both a child and a social experiment to her parents Robert (Jenkins) and Theresa (Winger), who raised her without birthday parties or pancake breakfasts or the “tender feelings” Theresa sees as a liability for her only daughter. The Dyne family has split the meager returns of their comically petty scams three ways since Old Dolio was old enough to participate, from returning stolen gift certificates for cash to stealing leftover airplane snacks.
Still, like the baby monkeys in Harlow’s famous psychological experiment, Old Dolio needs more than a wire mother. She’s starved for attention and affection, and that need turns into a family crisis when the Dynes meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) while flying cross country on another of their harebrained plots. Melanie is a bit of a shapeshifter herself, claiming to be an assistant to an ophthalmologist at Cedars-Sinai when she really works at a glasses store in the mall. Compared to that of the Dynes, her lifestyle (and decorating choices) are downright normal, even boring. And the stability of her life is intriguing to Old Dolio, who absorbs statements from Melanie like, “Most happiness comes from dumb things,” with the awe of a student sitting at the feet of their guru.
Rodriguez is a stabilizing force for the film in general, an everywoman whose raised eyebrows and incredulous questions imply the existence of a larger, more recognizable world beyond the Dynes’ odd little realm. Like many of the character motivations, her reasons for essentially adopting Old Dolio and teaching her how “normal” families do things—Going out to eat! Paying for food at the supermarket!—are sometimes vague. But the chemistry between Rodriguez and Wood is undeniable, and Rodriguez’s more naturalistic performance balances out her costar’s affected shuffling and deep, gravely monotone. Wood’s performance is sensitive, but it’s also silly at times—not a bad thing, necessarily, though scenes like the one where Old Dolio has an emotional epiphany at a gas station gain a necessary anchor when Rodriguez rushes in to drag her raving friend out of the store.
Midway through the film, a moneymaking scheme brings Melanie and the Dynes to the house of an elderly man dying of an unknown illness. Hoping to pass in peace, he asks Old Dolio if they can clink silverware together and talk softly amongst themselves, creating a soothing backdrop for his final moments. Unfazed, Old Dolio agrees, and Melanie sits down at the piano playing an aimless tune. Theresa pretends to serve imaginary cake, and Robert and Old Dolio scrape forks against empty plates, commenting on the delicious flavor of the invisible dessert. For a moment, they all live happily in a simulacrum of domestic contentment. They’re actually there to steal the old man’s PIN, and are pretending to be the children who aren’t there for him when he needs them. But if they fake it well enough, the warm feelings bubble up anyway. Kajillionaire wonders if that might be enough.