There is always a moment for me, early in any movie rather than late, where I ask myself if the storytelling is going to be good (or memorable, or quippy, or smart). Sometimes I am fooled into believing that it’s going to be great, as in The United States vs. Billie Holliday, where the movie starts out fine, gets bad and worse the longer I am sitting there, watching it crumble despite Andra Day’s fabulous performance. With Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, I knew that the story it was about to tell me was going to be a keeper, and I was not wrong. If you see Richard Jenkins standing at a downtown L.A. bus station, how can you not think of the pilot of Six Feet Under? The movie could easily be based on a graphic novel along the lines of Ghost World, and three streets along, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia might be unfolding.
To be fair, the movie also works perfectly on its own terms. Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood are almost unrecognisable under their long hair. Together with Jenkins, they play a family that is down on their luck, scamming and stealing mail, collecting discarded receipts in order to get a measly refund that will buy them food for the day. And on to the next day – any scam, any way to make five dollars is good enough for them. Life will not go on like that for much longer. It’s disheartening to see that they live in an abandoned office tract where the adjacent soap factory lets their excess spill dribble down the inside wall where the family swipe it off with rubbish bins just to keep their hideout dry.
There is pent-up resentment in living from day to day, especially with the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who is called Old Dolio, and if that is not a sign that your parents are weirdos, eking out their existence on the edge of society, then teach me what is. She is 26, and while Mum and Dad might be too old to slide back into any kind of regular life, she still seems to see that option for herself. They don’t treat her as a daughter, but as a partner in petty crime. She is horrified to learn about something called the breast crawl and confronts her mother about it. Old Dolio wants her mother to call her Hon, and her mother cannot bring herself around to doing that. Such a scene is funny, sad, and painful, all at the same time.
Enter Melanie (Gina Rodridguez). She is bored with her job at an optician’s store and slides into the family’s life like warm honey. She wants to have a part in their shenanigans, too, and I started to wonder if, in a story full of crooks, if she was the one who would steal from them all. She is aghast when Dad, apparently with Mom’s blessing, wants to climb into a whirlpool with her. There are movies like that, where the smartest thieves hide in plain sight and steal from the obvious, lesser thieves. Not this time around – Kajillionaire is cleverer than that. Miranda July’s movies are populated with quirky, eccentric characters, but this time, she finds a kind of mold to keep quirkiness to a smaller degree and let the story unfold. That makes the characters, especially the family, stand out stronger. You might deplore the fact that Melanie, who becomes much more of a daughter than Old Dolio ever was, is not given any more of a back story, but that is a minor quibble in an otherwise very enganging movie.
The very last scene is not a surprise; it is long in the making, but it is a deserving last scene, and I felt all warm and gooey for the two characters in it. What really surprised me was who the real, hardcore crooks are, not unfeeling, but seeing another scam and going for it. It is heartbreaking to realise this, but it was there all along, in those characters, and Kajillionaire is very much a character-driven movie. Turns out July is a very much better storyteller than she is an actor.