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Sundance 2020 Review: Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire, the new dramedy from writer-director Miranda July, tells the story of the Dyne family, a trio of grifters who devote their lives to ripping people off. I’m talking about a family so dedicated to grifting they should have an office in the White House.

There’s mom Theresa (Debra Winger), dad Robert (Richard Jenkins), and daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who spend their days devising plans to steal chump-change from their hapless marks. Their routine gets shaken up when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a sly young woman they let into their inner circle because she is a natural hustler. As Theresa and Robert treat Melanie like the daughter they never had, Old Dolio starts to realize her parents might be terrible people.

Here’s where things get complicated: The characters in this movie are atrocious people who do terrible things, but they each have their charms. Both things are true. They’re crafty but also desperate. And they’re so committed to their underhanded schemes they come off as underdogs. If there’s one thing cinema taught us over the past 100 years, it’s to root for the underdog.

The clan in Kajillionaire are similar to the impoverished, yet resourceful families in Parasite and Shoplifters (the last two films to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes). They lie, cheat, and steal, but only because they’re victims of circumstance. The Dynes live in squalor, paying $500 a month to live in a cluttered room inside of an office building. Real estate in L.A. isn’t cheap, so the low price comes with a catch. A couple times a day, soap suds leak through the walls like clockwork, and the Dynes must mop it up – imagine the blood crashing through the elevator doors in The Shining, but with foamy suds, and you get the picture.

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The entire cast is in top form, but Winger and Jenkins toe an especially difficult line. Robert and Theresa are simply the worst, but the film can’t tell us how awful they are right away. Instead, the actors slowly reveal their characters’ inherent flaws over time so that we understand their daughter’s state of denial.

The aspect of Kajillionaire I enjoyed most is how it nails the way toxic relationships work. It takes years, sometimes decades, for people on the receiving end of a toxic relationship to identify the issue and put the harmful behaviour into perspective. What’s most difficult is separating your love from the toxic person’s problematic nature.

Our heart’s default setting is unconditional love because there isn’t an on and off lever to pull when someone treats us like garbage. We don’t stop loving someone when they hurt us or betray our trust.

Love is addictive, reassuring, and long-lasting, but above all, messy. Life would be so much easier if that weren’t the case. Its easier to accept a loved one’s abusive behaviour rather than cut them out of your life. Melanie and Old Dolio’s lives couldn’t be more different. But in terms of dealing with their families, they find themselves in the same sinking ship. They each love people incapable of reciprocating those feelings.

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Melanie’s mom is a narcissist who shows no interest in anyone but herself. We’ve all experienced this type of one-way relationship at some point. If Melanie called and said she has the coronavirus her mom would cut her off and talk about her aching bunions. Does she love her daughter? Probably. But she is incapable of offering love and support in a way that Melanie needs. It’s a no-win situation for a daughter in need of her mother’s attention.

Melanie understands her messed up relationship with her mom and on some level, accepts it. The script never details Melanie’s backstory, but Rodriguez brings a degree of weariness to each interaction with her mom. Their exchanges sketch out a rough image of the young woman’s long journey towards accepting her mom’s behaviour. Melanie uses her own anguished experience to become Old Dolio’s emotional Sherpa on the winding road to acceptance.

Old Dolio and her parents’ love languages don’t broadcast on the same wavelength. Robert and Theresa fulfill each others’ needs, but Old Dolio needs something more. The saddest part? She doesn’t even know what she’s missing because of her sheltered life.

Old Dolio comes across as a hollow shell of a person who has no idea who she is and what she wants. At first, it seems as though Wood’s performance is too broad. With her husky voice and stiff body language, the character feels more fitting of a wacky buddy comedy. As the story unfolds, we see something awaken inside of her. It’s a slow, subtle, and bizarre transformation that ultimately imbues the movie with heart.

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Emile Mosseri’s playful score and Sebastian Winterø’s sun-kissed cinematography paint a heightened vision of Los Angeles teeming with offbeat characters. July creates a world full of whimsy while also acknowledging L.A.’s seedy underbelly. I could imagine characters like Barry Egan and Dirk Diggler walking through these very streets.

Beyond the hilarious crime-family shenanigans, Kajillionaire is a story about broken people coming together to feel whole. The movie is surreal, sentimental, and full of kooky characters but also rooted in heartfelt themes that we can all relate to. Kajillionaire will resonate with anyone who ever felt lost and alone amongst the people they’re closest to. July’s latest picture delivers an earnest reminder that we all deserve to love and be loved on our own terms.



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