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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Kajillionaire

Starring Evan Rachel Wood as a con artist, this comedy is one of the most distinctive, empathetic and engaging movies of the year.
By Sarah Ward
October 22, 2020
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Kajillionaire

Starring Evan Rachel Wood as a con artist, this comedy is one of the most distinctive, empathetic and engaging movies of the year.
By Sarah Ward
October 22, 2020
  shares

When Evan Rachel Wood played a troubled teen in 2003's Thirteen, the then 16-year-old received a Golden Globe nomination. For her work in Westworld since 2016, she has nabbed multiple Emmy nods. So when we say that the actor puts in her best performance yet in Kajillionaire — the type of portrayal that deserves several shiny trophies — that observation isn't made lightly. Playing a 26-year-old con artist called Old Dolio Dyne, Wood is anxious but yearning, closed-off yet vulnerable, and forceful as well as unsure all at once. Her character has spent her entire life being schooled in pulling off quick scams by her eccentric parents Robert (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) and Theresa (Debra Winger, The Lovers), who she still lives with, and she's stuck navigating her own street-wise brand of arrested development. Old Dolio knows how to blend in, with her baggy clothes, curtain of long hair and low-toned voice. She also knows how to avoid security cameras in physical feats that wouldn't look out of place in a slapstick comedy, and how to charm kindly folks out of reward money. But she has never been allowed to truly be her own person — and, from the moment that Wood is seen on-screen, that mournful truth is immediately evident.

Kajillionaire introduces Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa as they're falling back on one of their most reliable swindles: stealing packages from post office boxes. Old Dolio bobs and weaves like a ninja to avoid prying eyes, while her parents watch on from a safe distance, a formula that most of their other small-time rackets also rely upon. They're not trying to strike it rich and live ultra glamorous lives, although they do like entering competitions. As Robert lectures on one of his many musings about their chosen lifestyle, they don't want to be kajillionaires like everyone else in America seems to. Rather, they're merely endeavouring to maintain their offbeat existence — including keeping a low profile, staying off the grid and away from the government's prying eyes, and holing up in the basement level of an abandoned office building.

In the aforementioned vacant structure the Dynes call home — which is still filled with cubicles, office furniture and stationery — big waves of pink suds seep down from above multiple times a day. That's an absurdist detail, even just to look at; however, it says more about the film's characters, the feature itself and the approach favoured by writer/director Miranda July than a simple description can convey. As the latter demonstrated with Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, she's fond of both surveying the routines of everyday life and using surreal and whimsical flourishes to lay bare the emotions lingering underneath. Vivid to watch but considered a chore in the movie, those soapy bubbles are a classic July touch. They also reflect the blend of eccentricity and repetition that marks this unconventional family's days, and share much in common with Old Dolio specifically. Never treated like a child or allowed to celebrate her birthday, and trained to split every score she makes with her parents since she was a kid, she has long been taken for granted — but, for those willing to actually take notice, she's far more than just the third part of a trio.

Narrative-wise, Kajillionaire tracks this realisation within Old Dolio herself, as sparked by two developments. Firstly, to make a quick $20 to help cover overdue rent, she agrees to attend a parenting class for someone she meets on the street, and is struck by how far removed its teachings are from her own experiences. Secondly, on a return flight back to Los Angeles from New York as part of a travel insurance grift, her parents meet and befriend lively optometrist's assistant Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation). So accustomed to playing the role dictated to her by Robert and Theresa, and never deviating from it, Old Dolio isn't prepared for the emotions stirred up by both changes to her status quo. But July's poignant and perceptive movie — a film that's a quirky heist flick, a playful but shrewd exploration of family bonds, and a sweet love story — is perfectly, mesmerisingly equipped to navigate her protagonist's efforts to reach beyond the only loved ones and the only type of life she has ever known.

That Wood and July make a delightful actor-filmmaker combo really can't be stressed enough. Old Dolio finds herself searching for the kindness she didn't know she'd been missing, Kajillionaire's director regards everything about the character with affection and understanding, and the result is one of the most distinctive, empathetic and engaging movies of the year. The film doesn't gloss over any of its key figures' flaws or struggles, of which there are many, or the fact that little about these scammers can be wholly trusted even by each other. And yet, July knows that the best way to tell Old Dolio's tale — and Robert, Theresa and Melanie's too — is to jump on their wavelength. Ultimately, this is a movie shaped as much by its mood, tone and rhythms as its plot and themes, although it does an intuitive and insightful job of demonstrating how consumption-driven lives, 21st-century living in general, and the supposed be all and end all that is the American Dream can prove empty and limiting.

To answer the question that's on everyone's minds from the moment that Old Dolio's name is uttered, yes, Kajillionaire offers an explanation. Yes, it's as idiosyncratic and revealing as the rest of the movie. It's rare for a film to feel so rich, so unique and so completely the sum of its parts, but July's third feature manages that feat in everything from its bright but never postcard-perfect lensing of LA and its off-kilter episodic antics to its tender appreciation of an individualistic young woman whose initials literally spell out ODD.

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