An abandoned office that oozes pink foam, a parade of extremely silly walks, and a space-time portal that opens up in a gas station restroom — these are just a few of the remarkable images conjured in art star Miranda July’s latest film, Kajillionaire, a comedy about a family of grifters that morphs into a kind of cosmic queer awakening.
Hustling between the sun-bleached, low-income backstreets of east Los Angeles and the suburban tombs of the Valley, an unusual trio of con-artists — two boomer parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) and their 26-year-old daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) — eke out a poverty-line existence by running low-rent scams involving the mail, using the meagre proceeds to scrape together the rent on the condemned office block they call home.
Because it’s a Miranda July movie, that office also adjoins a bubble factory, whose deceptively fluffy runoff menaces the makeshift residence like a fairy-floss relative of the Blob. (“It leaks on a schedule,” says the site foreman, in a helium voice betraying his daily exposure to the foam.)
Together, the family’s scams almost serve as parodies of every get-rich scheme dangled under American capitalism, where a high degree of hard, complicated work results in minimal reward.
“I prefer to just skim,” dad says of their crackpot plan for living off the grid. “Most people want to be kajillionaires — that’s how they get you hooked.”
A warped mirror image of the close-knit family unit, this motley clan bears all the signs of something idealistic that has curdled into barebones survival: both Jenkins and Winger, their desperation concealing something potentially creepy, have the feel of counterculture anarchists whose plans to drop out of the system have gone to seed, and who’ve taken to grimly drilling their remaining hopes into their offspring.
Wood, meanwhile, with her husky-butch voice, five-sizes-too-large tracksuit and cascading, golden hippie hair, seems tuned to a pop culture dial set somewhere between Billie Eilish and Cousin Itt — appropriate enough for someone whose parents have named her Old Dolio, after a local homeless guy who won the lottery.
Raised without affection, Old Dolio — played with physical inventiveness by the intuitive Wood — has become a distant, vaguely dissociative misfit who flinches at human touch, while her formless, gender-blurring costume attests to the sexless limbo to which her parents have consigned her.
But when the family encounters Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a potential mark who agrees to help them on their latest scam, their operation begins to unravel — and Old Dolio’s tiny, emotionally closed-off world is blown wide open.
This is the third feature film from July, a multidisciplinary artist who came of age in the DIY feminist scene of the American Northwest in the 90s and whose work has gone on to encompass everything from performance art and novels to reality-blurring social media exchanges.
Her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), emerged during a period when it could easily be mistaken for one of the endless, quirky Sundance films glutting the indie landscape, but even detractors would be hard-pressed to deny the ambitious, science-fiction-like contortions at work in her follow-up, The Future (2011).
Kajillionaire’s oddball trappings will do little to endear July to those already discouraged by talking cat puppets and other such whimsy, but the film is further proof that her alleged tweeness is a misconception.
Beneath the glary pastels, sunny vistas and seemingly benign weirdos, Kajillionaire digs into the darkness and depression lurking around every corner of a deeply disconnected LA, where whimsical pop wafts over a homeless epidemic, and an unsuspecting wanderer is as likely to encounter a dumpster wraith as an off-duty movie star.
The film continues July’s exploration of connection, and the yearning for intimacy, upending and queering the myth of family while exploring possibilities for those cut adrift from society’s norms.
Though cleverly designed, July’s film seems to amble along rather casually, even goofily, before stumbling upon its moments of poignancy, such as a scene mid-film in which the grifters improvise a substitute family for a dying man whose home they plan to rob — a sequence of unexpectedly moving grace.
On occasion, this can come across as contrivance — a new parent natal class that Old Dolio just happens to wander into is a little too convenient a forum for thematic exposition — but mostly the rhythm catches you off guard, throwing you sideways with revelations that bloom like an unexpected crush.
In the movie’s standout sequence, even the infinite expanse of space crashes the narrative, inducing an out-of-body experience for its characters that suggests the radical possibilities of discovery and reinvention — where a tender kiss in a chain store, set to a sentimental old teen idol ballad, might as well be a gateway to another dimension.
Kajillionaire is in cinemas now.