Miranda July’s latest is her most idiosyncratic and self-aware work to date.
As an artist, it really feels like Miranda July has done it all at this point. From Riot Grrl–zine publisher to performance artist to filmmaker to novelist to app developer, her body of work can probably best be summed up by an Onion headline: “Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is”.
But the answer to that question isn’t really as complicated as you’d think. She’s a creator who’s intensely interested in how connections form between people, in the ties that bind (or how they break, depending on the circumstances). In Me and You and Everyone We Know the focus was on longing, specifically for love and understanding. In The Future, it was about stasis and fear and how those things can break you apart. And in Kajillionaire, it’s about family and finding yourself within it or maybe in spite of it.
In a departure from her previous work, July removes herself from centerstage (though she still acts as sole writer and director) and puts Evan Rachel Wood in the lead as Old Dolio instead. The daughter of two lifelong and comically terrible con artists (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), Old Dolio’s life is turned upside down when in the middle of a job they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Melanie quickly talks the family into a fresh con and throws their whole world off-kilter in the process. The more time Old Dolio spends with Melanie, the more obvious the voids in her own life appear until she’s forced to confront her relationship with her family head-on.
Even without July front and center, Kajillionaire bears many of the hallmarks of her idiosyncratic work. The family lives in an abandoned office space next to a bubble factory that constantly overflows into their quarters. Woods’s performance as Old Dolio is delightfully bizarre—her voice dropped to a low bass, her long hair hanging like an impenetrable curtain, and her strange, almost mechanical body movements that resemble the first steps of a robotic baby gazelle. But there’s a blending of worlds this time, one we don’t really see in Me and You and Everyone We Know or The Future. In Kajillionaire, July’s world collides with the real world in stark contrast, most specifically through the character of Melanie.
Melanie is everything Dolio’s family isn’t: she’s talkative, inviting, warm, and stunning making Gina Rodriguez’s casting pitch-perfect. After all, Rodriguez herself would seem to be everything a Miranda July film isn’t. She’s accessible. She feels like the girl next door instead of an alien artist or a metaphor or hyperbole incarnate.
July knows this and that’s why it works. Melanie’s existence in the film is a commentary not just on Old Dolio and her family’s lifestyle, but on July’s work itself. She’s proof that July is acutely aware of how her characters appear in contrast to so-called “normal” people. But as Melanie’s relationship with Old Dolio develops over the course of the film, she’s also proof that there’s perhaps not so much distance between the Melanies and Old Dolios of the world after all.
Even without July front and center, Kajillionaire bears many of the hallmarks of her idiosyncratic work.
Ultimately, there’s a simplicity to the story in Kajillionaire that makes this the most grounded and straightforward of her films to date. Watching July’s characters interact in a world we recognize is both unpredictably funny and captivating. You can feel July stretching herself as a director, stepping into unfamiliar territory. While it lacks some of the standout visuals of her previous films (the pink shoes in Me and You, the cat’s paw in The Future), it’s a solidly entertaining little film.
In some ways, it feels more like a companion piece to The First Bad Man than anything else. The novel looks at the relationship between women who are seemingly polar opposites and explores and expands the definition of family. Kajillionaire takes these ideas a step further while illustrating them with the same absurdist wit. Ultimately it’s all just further proof that July still has a lot more she wants to say.
In a recent interview with Vulture, she half-jokes that she could tell the world she’s gang-banged and our collective response would still be to call her “twee” and roll our eyes. “It doesn’t really matter what I do, so I feel pretty free at this point,” she says. Thank god she does because I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Kajillionaire limbos its way into theaters (stay safe!) September 25th.
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