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The Family That Preys Together

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Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
Kajillionaire (2020)

Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) thought naming their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) after a homeless man who won the lottery would result in her inheriting. Instead, they live in the disused office of a Los Angeles bubble factory. Bubbles spill through a crack in the ceiling at set times a day; they must be caught in buckets and the wall toweled dry, but the inconvenience is why the rent is so cheap. The family is behind, of course. Instead of working regular jobs, they are low-grade grifters and petty thieves. Well, Robert and Theresa come up with the ideas, and Old Dolio carries them out. She steals from the post office, doing an elaborate dance to avoid the security cameras. She tries to swap a gift certificate for a cash refund, or maybe that rock on the desk. She agrees to take a parenting class on someone’s behalf for $20. They are such a codependent family Old Dolio thinks it’s growth to be the one to propose a lost luggage scam that will clear their back rent. On the plane, they sit separately, which puts Robert next to Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a chatty physician’s assistant delighted to find real-life intrigue. Suddenly, what seemed to be “not unreasonable” is no longer the case.

With little more than these four actors, writer-director Miranda July tells the story of an unusual young woman’s unusual coming-of-age. Ms. Wood is astonishing as Old Dolio, hiding herself under her long hair and mismatched tracksuit, expressing her unhappiness through the most extraordinary physicality. The shot of her at the luggage carousel in an ill-fitting thrift-store suit and oversized glasses, watching with jealousy and disgust as Melanie laughs with her parents, is a masterclass in expressing emotion through the body. Until then Old Dolio had never really questioned how her parents see the world; this is an L.A. full of earthquakes, and the family’s terror of them. Robert and Theresa bring out the worst in each other – Ms. Winger and Mr. Jenkins expertly play to type, as the bitterly resentful mother and the conspiracy-obsessed father, respectively – but are very happy together. But Melanie is from the ordinary world, thinking heists are fun in movies and kind of a joke in real life, and little earthquakes are startling but nothing more. It takes her hardly any time at all to understand what she’s really gotten herself into.

The Kaufmanesque set-up combined with Andersonesque visuals give a deceptively light feel to the movie’s main premise: Whether con artists can ever be trusted. Melanie never loses sight of herself, and just the fact of that gives Old Dolio the ability to start seeing herself clearly, too. Melanie has her own reasons for becoming a part of this, which is good, not least because no one needs another movie where brown people teach white people how to feel. Her quicksilver intelligence and gentle anger are for her own benefit – look at Ms. Rodriguez’s face in the second hot tub scene, and during the argument in the parking lot – which gives the movie an unusual heft.

But there is one major problem, and that is Old Dolio’s age. She is so uncomfortable in herself, so used to believing she’s incapable of tender feelings, that she easily comes across as a teenager. Late in the movie it’s (surprisingly not a spoiler) established she is in her mid-20s. Whether or not this was to ensure the character was closer to Ms. Wood’s real age, this is horrifying. For Old Dolio to remain so enmeshed in her parents’ lifestyle at her age requires more explanation than the film provides. She doesn’t know how to open a bag of potato chips, for Pete’s sake. What kind of education did she receive? Can someone unhappy really make no effort whatsoever to find a friend of any kind? The daughter in the similarly-themed “Leave No Trace” was 13, and more than capable of thinking for herself. If Old Dolio was still underage, or had any explanation for remaining under their thrall as an adult, it would have gone a long way to understanding why she’s never attempted any kind of escape. The movie’s paranoid logic is generally solid, but Ms. July needed to do more heavy lifting instead of trusting Ms. Wood’s extraordinary performance to override our questions.

If that can be overlooked, “Kajillionaire” is a beautiful demonstration of the steps a person has to take to become a person of her own, what she needs from other people in order to achieve that, and what she has to let go of. Sebastian Wintero’s matter-of-fact camera work does a marvelous job of reflecting Old Dolio’s detachment from but longing for a normal life, and Ms. July’s cockeyed realism is grounded in enough petty reality – down payments, massage tables, how to unglue fake fingernails – to make us feel like something similar could be happening next door. And as the lady who runs the parenting class says, sometimes verbalizing the need is enough.

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