We’re all warped by our parents. Even in the best situation — even being raised by the most perfect people — their influence has an impact, molding us into images of themselves. As much as we try to be our own person, they’re inside us, rattling around in our head and affecting us on a molecular level. If you got lucky and ended up with good parents, that influence is a great thing. But some people aren’t so lucky.
There are few characters you’ll meet all year weirder than Old Dolio Dyne, the stilted protagonist of writer-director Miranda July’s superb Kajillionaire. In her 20s, with long hair, an unsmiling face and decked out in unflattering tracksuits, Old Dolio is the downbeat daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who subsist in L.A. on small cons. They’ll send Old Dolio to the post office, where she opens up the family P.O. box and then sticks her hand all the way through the slot so that she can swipe packages from the nearby boxes. Behind on their rent — they’re squatting in an abandoned warehouse space, avoiding their landlord at all costs — she comes up with a plan in which they’ll use free airline tickets to fly to New York and back, pretending on the return trip that they’ve lost their luggage and pocketing the insurance payout. There’s no pleasure in her scams, though, and there’s no show of affection from her parents. We keep waiting to find out that she’s not really their kid — that it’s just one more con. But nope, this is the family she was born into.
July, who previously made Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, specializes in strange worlds that look like ours but stubbornly refuse to behave in any sort of normal fashion. “Quirky” is a common adjective to describe her work. So is “twee.” (“I could say, ‘Yeah, I gangbanged,’ and people would still be like, ‘I don’t know. She seems twee,’” July lamented recently to New York magazine, clearly aware of how her precious, handmade aesthetic rubs some people.)
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kajillionaire isn’t your typical con-man caper film. For one thing, the Dynes are the opposite of slick charmers. (Their thrift-store clothes and melancholy expression give them the look of hipster drifters.) But more importantly, their cons aren’t particularly witty or suave. There’s an unglamorous tedium to their crimes. Although we don’t know much about Robert and Theresa, we gather that this is just what they’ve done all their lives. Old Dolio had no choice but to go into the family business.
Old Dolio is played by Evan Rachel Wood, who drains any personality out of herself to depict this Eeyore of a character. At first, it might seem like Old Dolio is depressed — her voice monotone and husky, her eyes devoid of life — but as we watch this threesome go about their days, what becomes apparent is that this is just the way she is. She’s a perfect mirror of her parents, who aren’t outwardly loving to one another, reminiscent of those couples who have cohabitated so long that they’re just two blobs who share the same space. As much as Old Dolio tries to impress them — like with that luggage scam — it elicits zero response. Robert and Theresa live off the grid — they reject the shackling norms of polite society — but that resistance to convention apparently also includes eschewing the traditional warmth and nurturing you’d show your offspring. Old Dolio’s tragedy is that, because she’s been cut off from the outside world, she thinks she doesn’t deserve anything more than how she’s been raised.
Into this airless environment comes Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who’s on the flight back to L.A. with the Dynes and is instantly jazzed by the prospect of being part of their hustle. (As she excitedly tells Old Dolio, she always did love those Ocean’s Eleven movies.) Old Dolio takes an immediate dislike to this interloper, who wears curve-hugging midriffs and actually seems well-adjusted. Even more irksome, though, is that her parents respond so strongly to Melanie, instantly captivated by a scam she proposes in which they’ll visit her elderly customers — she works at an eyecare store at the mall — and pilfer their expensive antiques. Those outward signs of affection that Old Dolio craves from Robert and Theresa are given to this new woman effortlessly. Old Dolio just wanted to please her parents — why is it so easy for an outsider to do the thing that’s proved impossible for her?
Melanie will upend the Dynes’ brittle ecosystem, and soon Kajillionaire proves to be, like July’s earlier films, a story about trying to feel less alone. For all her storytelling quirks — Kajillionaire has a running joke in which the action is periodically interrupted by random earthquakes — she crafts sentimental, uber-vulnerable tales of people scared of love but desperate to connect with others. With that in mind, the repressed Old Dolio might be her most delicate creation: She’s so terrified of her own emotional neediness that she’s not sure if Melanie is her salvation or a dynamo that will cause her to shatter. As with July’s previous work, Kajillionaire presents the character’s oddness as an understandable, although inefficient way of coping with insecurity. Very slowly, we pick up on Old Dolio’s desire to defy her parents — to find some version of herself that’s separate from them — which will require her to go out into a big scary world that she knows nothing about. Maybe Melanie can help her escape — or maybe Robert and Theresa will decide they’d rather have Melanie around than their own daughter.
It’s pretty normal for kids, at some point in their development, to rebel. In fact, it’s healthy so that they can cultivate a sense of independence. If they don’t, they run the risk of turning into Old Dolio, and although Kajillionaire is mostly a comedy, there’s a sobering subtext of parental neglect that runs throughout the film. For all the script’s narrative cul-de-sacs and bizarre character details — wait until you find out how Old Dolio got her name — July examines how parents and children are fused together, and what happens to that bond once the child sees it more like a leash. Most parents warp their kids but love them nonetheless. In July’s universe, the biggest con is believing you can’t break free.