It is a testament to the quality of this year’s Sundance Film Festival back in January—in the good old pre-lockdown days—that close to a year later, its offerings are still finding outlets for those who weren’t in Park City, Utah. Such is the case for Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire,” a film that is neither comedy nor drama yet teases elements of both such that, when it ends, the filmmaker forces the audience to undergo hard questions about empathy and identity.
Evan Rachel Wood is a twenty six-year-old woman with the rather ungainly handle of Old Dolio, and whose life has been spent as her parents’ accomplice in a series of scams. Of her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) and mother Theresa (Debra Winger) we are to learn little other than that even if their schemes seldom work out, it’s the chase that matters: The thrill is less in the money they might conceivably take than in the adrenaline of pursuit. A character introduced later in the narrative will describe Old Dolio’s relationship with her parents as addictive, and this is more right than the young lady likely ever dared imagine.
On one such scam, the family flies from Los Angeles to New York and back in a day for reasons that seem foolish to us but have a certain internal logic for them (never mind they hate flying). On the return flight west Robert and Theresa make the acquaintance of Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is about Old Dolio’s age, and immediately they recognize a fellow con artist. That they could so instantly invite her to be a part of the next scheme follows as naturally as does Old Dolio’s umbrage at same—and her jealousy at Melanie’s addition to the merry band of thieves will have necessary complications.
How Old Dolio could have lived this life for over a quarter-century is one of the questions the film doesn’t address. By age twenty-six most of us have at least begun to choose our own destinies, but Old Dolio seems locked in a perpetual adolescence foisted upon her thanks to her unique familial dynamic (perhaps the “correct” age for her character would have been sixteen). But maybe this is July’s point: When you aren’t allowed to leave the nest, you’ll continue to be trapped in childhood.
Also, Old Dolio cannot get along without her folks: Like all bad relationships, her default mode with outsiders is to complain, and yet she always comes back for more abuse.
Just how dysfunctional this familial unit is becomes clear, as Robert and Theresa are drawn to Melanie for reasons beyond the fiscal. And it is only then that Old Dolio realizes she is less a daughter than an accomplice. Love isn’t part of the equation when your only connection is splitting the pot three ways.
How Melanie and Old Dolio’s relationship unfolds in the second half requires a leap of the audience considering how briefly they have known one another. Perhaps Melanie recognizes in Old Dolio a fellow wounded soul, but would such recognition truly push her to take such an interest in her future? Each of us sees what we want to see in another person, and if there is goodness there or someone needing rescuing, we’ll put forth the effort. So does Melanie.
Wood, as always, is a force of nature as Old Dolio, and she and Rodriguez bring to life the necessarily complicated chemistry required of them in the second half of the film. And I’ve long admired both Winger and Jenkins, who never so much seem to act as to rather just “be” natural on screen. I’ve never seen either give a bad performance, and their aging scamster act is both painful to behold but also done so earnestly that you get the sense they truly can’t help themselves.
And just when I think I’ve seen everything, the film has a surprise in store for Melanie and Old Dolio—and us. As with everything else in this family, how things turn out for Old Dolio follows a certain twisted logic that, when all is revealed, can’t help but make you shake your head. Or smile.