Sundance 2020: Kajillionaire, by David Bax
One the best of the many great shots in Miranda July’s Kajillionaire tracks along the interior of an airplane as our protagonists, a family of low grade grifters (Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins), having waited for everyone else to disembark, make their way down the aisle picking up belongings and scraps of food left behind. The moment recalls Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners & I but any indication that Kajillionaire is also going to be about economics and ethics is a feint. Instead, this family’s position outside of society mirrors July’s trademark approach to human nature, culture and customs from the point of view of a bemused alien.
Robert (Jenkins), Theresa (Winger) and their daughter Old Dolio (Wood)–I won’t spoil the absurd explanation of how she came to be so named–are on the return flight after their scrap-gathering trip (which was itself a part of a larger scheme), when they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). As soon as Melanie figures out what it is they do, she’s enamored and wants to join in. But the introduction of a relatively normal–if sad and lonely–person into their midst upends Old Dolio’s long held beliefs about how life ought to be lived.
Kajillionaire is July’s third feature and her third set in Los Angeles, a city she clearly feels warmly toward; she deserves induction into the Paul Thomas Anderson-style guild of Los Angeles filmmakers. But, in other ways, this new film is a change. It’s the first she’s not in, for one. And it also her first time using a scope aspect ratio. Her clear adeptness with the wide frame and self-conscious visual symmetry makes Kajillionaire feel more like joke on au courant American indie aesthetics than just another example of them.
That’s probably because July is seemingly incapable of approaching anything head-on. To her and to Old Dolio, who never lived the “straight” life her parents did before she was born, most daily human interaction is, at best, a game we all play and, at worst, a dreary routine we all observe. July flattens out human experience so that the rituals of small talk and of death exist on the same, ridiculous plane. There are early hints, though, that Old Dolio has a genuine interest in our rules and regulations when she takes $20 from a neighbor to attend a court-ordered parenting class in her place and starts to wonder about her own upbringing.
Kajillionaire is nowhere near corny enough to suggest that all our little ceremonies, patterns and pageants are what really matter in life, only that there’s some beauty to be found in the play. A scene where the four leads pretend to be a regular family while trying to relieve an old man of his checkbook is as funny as it is sweet. As Melanie says, in a line that almost sums up the movie, “Most happiness comes from dumb things.”