- Focus Features
Few descriptors trap a filmmaker quite the way "quirky" does. Distinctively oddball visual or verbal flourishes quickly become the entirety of that creator's artistic identity; ask Wes Anderson, who's spent nearly 25 years dealing with detractors who can't see beyond certain stylistic choices to the humanity in his narratives.
It's easy to get bogged down in the weird details in Miranda July films, whether it's a fetish about poop becoming a cutesy plain-text emoji in 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know, or using a cat as the narrator in 2011's The Future. In her latest feature, Kajillionaire, a family lives in a one-time Los Angeles office space, scraping down pink bubbles that come pouring through the ceiling at regular intervals; one character seems to believe he can determine if someone is pregnant by sniffing her; and the protagonist is a young woman named Old Dolio (after a homeless man). Yet July's stories have also been tales of deep melancholy, in which the flightier moments allow for the emotions to emerge in a less maudlin fashion. You might argue that July makes her point in Kajillionaire, then keeps making it again, but you can't make a reasonable case that her movies are fluff with nothing at the center.
The inhabitants of that aforementioned bubble-blighted office space are the Dynes: Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and their 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). And skating by in the cheapest possible living space is only one component of their grifter lifestyle, as they live solely by means of short cons, stealing from post office boxes and signing up for contests. Their little trio unexpectedly adds a member when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who introduces the family to another possible line of revenue, even as she throws the chemistry of the Dyne family out of whack.
The majority of that imbalance comes from Old Dolio, a sadly fascinating character elevated by Wood's wonderfully weird performance. It's clear early on how much she's been affected by her unorthodox upbringing—unable to handle even the close proximity of physical contact without crying, and rattled by a video in a parenting class that shows what actual parental bonding looks like. Wood conveys the intense introversion of someone treated by her parents as a business partner rather than their child, speaking in a husky voice that feels more than anything like a Debra Winger impression, which along with the shaggy straight hair Theresa and Old Dolio share, feels like an attempt at connecting with her mother by mimicking her. That's saying nothing of the weird physicality she brings to the role, which constantly suggests someone who hasn't quite figured out how to be a person.
That character becomes the jumping-off point for a story about the loneliness of feeling distant from those who are supposed to love you most—and unable to depend on them for a feeling of security, as Robert and Theresa consistently freak out over L.A.'s tremors and airplane turbulence. Kajillionaire's strongest sequence finds the Dynes and Melanie planning to rip off a bedridden elderly man, who only wants them to make the sounds of a normal family in his house while he waits to die. July folds Melanie's diegetic piano playing and the Dynes' mundane conversation topics into a moment when Old Dolio begins to recognize the home life she never got a chance to experience.
As genuine as July's emotional journey into family dysfunction is, it's also true that Kajillionaire exposes some of the too-much-ness of the filmmaker's style; while she gets a great visual gag out of Old Dolio's limbo-style walk to avoid being spotted by their landlord, the bit loses steam when it's employed a second time. There's also a disappointingly underwritten quality to Rodriguez's role—whose relationship with her own mother seems relevant but remains a bit too obscure—as well as to the foundations for a possible romance between Old Dolio and Melanie. Kajillionaire definitely underlines its emotional thesis, up to and including closing with Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely" on the soundtrack. But when it's satisfying as a story, it's easy to see that there's a lot more going on under Miranda July's watch than quirkiness.