Debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Kajillionaire is the latest effort from writer/director Miranda July, an artistic savant who has churned out music, novels, and films during her impressive career. Returning to the screen after a nine-year reprieve, July’s latest indie effort showcases her humanistic eye in a sensitive coming-of-age delight.
Kajillionaire follows Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Woods), a 26-year old whose sole life experience derives her detached grifter parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger). Living on the outskirts of society, the trio rob and steals while skating away from societal norms. When they introduce a new member Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) to their schemes, Dolio begins to have eye-opening revelations about her self-serving parents.
Kajillionaire’s quirky premise could potentially emanate a mawkish tone, yet July consistently steers her film towards authentic truths. Dolio’s parents aren’t lovable outcasts, instead operating as callous thieves that force their daughter into a twisted lifestyle. Robert and Theresa push Dolio to maddening extremes while constantly giving her the cold shoulder, with July using the first half to build on the parent’s casual ambivalence slowly. These frames aren’t joyless though, with Jenkins and Winger’s distinct mannerisms generating laughs along the way (they often act like whinny children who place sole responsibility on their daughter). July’s screenplay offers enough nuance to make her vibrant characters come to life, never allowing the eccentric figures to morph into caricatures.
Under this coldness, July works to create a deeply empathetic journey for Dolio. Evan Rachel Wood delivers an unrecognizable performance, disappearing into the central character’s insular persona while gradually developing her voice onscreen. Watching her slowly discover a sense of warmth and emotional vulnerability becomes a touching journey to endure, with July hitting all the right notes in the character’s gradual development (her music choices add significantly to the narrative). The addition of Gina Rodriguez to the film’s second half is a strong one, with Rodriguez offering one of her most personal performances to date while still imbuing a sharp edge.
Kajillionaire often elevates its festival sensibility, although the third act left me wishing July stuck the landing. The final frames are somewhat haphazard in their construction, concluding in a pleasant place that doesn’t necessarily feel earned given the prior development. It’s all slightly rushed, perhaps benefiting from a lengthed approach to further enrich the characters’ journey (Rodriguez’s character is sharp, but lacks thought out motivations).
Never allowing the inherent quirks to overwhelm its narrative, Kajillionaire delivers a refined character portrait from Miranda July, often enhancing the film’s familiar festival trappings.