When you realise that ageing grifters Robert and Teresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) named their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) after a lottery-winning homeless man, you immediately learn everything you need to know about the swindling couple. They thought the name would secure them inheritance of some sort, but instead they live in a disused office of a Los Angeles bubble factory where, at set times each day, they have to wash up the rogue, leaking soapy bubbles that protrude through a wall opening. It’s an inconvenience, but hey, at least rent is cheap; at least it would be if they could afford to pay it.
Instead of making an honest living, Robert and Teresa have skirted by on the smallest of scams and low-grade crimes, the perfectly matched couple hatching the ideas that they often employ Old Dolio to carry out; our first introduction to the strange creature that is Old Dolio is in Kajillionaire‘s opening seconds where she does an elaborate acrobatic dance to avoid being seen by the security cameras on her way to steal select packages from the post office.
As we see their desperation in trying to refund a massage gift certificate for cash – or perhaps the rock ornament adorning the masseur’s desk – and the fact that for $20 Old Dolio will attend a parenting class on behalf of an actual expectant mother, the tragic, stilted environment the Dyne’s have raised their daughter within becomes more and more apparent; we’re ultimately unsurprised when she questions in what capacity are they her parents.
As Jenkins and Winger disappear effortlessly into their bitterly resentful characters, and Wood channels a wealth of emotion through her clenched body, displaying masterful physicality as a young woman who has accepted her odd upbringing as an existence of normality – although there’s a genderless quality to Old Dolio that seems deliberate on behalf of both Wood’s astonishing performance and writer/director Miranda July‘s insight – Kajillionaire slowly morphs from a quirky, crime-minded comedy to something a little more philosophical as the family are introduced to Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a live-wire physician’s assistant who initially finds the thrill of a con-artist lifestyle quite inviting.
Little more than a four-person act between Jenkins, Winger, Wood and Rodriguez, Kajillionaire‘s coming-of-age narrative regarding Old Dolio’s sudden awakening is masked underneath its exaggerated comedic premise. Filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) could have a field day with a film of this ilk, but July’s eye is distinctly her own, with the film’s shift towards a more dramatic, even romantic plotting feeling remarkably organic.
Melanie, a role that only further highlights how much of a charismatic performer Rodriguez truly is, acts essentially as Old Dolio’s guide towards what a real life should be, and not the sheltered, co-dependent subsistence she’s been forced to abide at the hands of her quietly villainous parents. The film’s most beautiful moments happen between Wood and Rodriguez, and it’s because the two actresses inject so much personality and heart into their roles that the relationship that blossoms between the two never feels anything other than completely natural.
As heightened as the situation at hand may be, July keeps things grounded just enough that Kajillionaire feels like a narrative that very easily could play out in a relatable reality. And even if a character such as Old Dolio feels too unique on a personality level, that yearning for a better, more fulfilling life and the steps one needs to take in order to become a more realised person is a trait so beautifully demonstrated that even cinematic realists could find a common ground of engagement.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Kajillionaire is screening in most Australian cinemas from October 22nd 2020.