Let Miranda July decode the ‘love language’ of ‘Kajillionaire’ for you
Spoiler warning: The following story discusses the ending of the film “Kajillionaire,” now available on PVOD. If you haven’t yet seen the film, come back once you have. And in the meantime, check out this review and this story on the creation of Evan Rachel Wood’s character, Old Dolio.
Two women stand at the checkout counter of a big-box store, making a number of returns. As one of them hands over one last item, a necklace she is wearing, the register turns over to $525.00. The moment swells as the two women entwine for their first romantic kiss.
When Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, there was a palpable shift in the room as audiences veered from enjoying an affable, offbeat comedy about a family of low-stakes con artists to being swept up by a sincere, vulnerable romance. Hearts burst with joy and eyes filled with tears. One would be hard-pressed to recall the last time a cash register signaled such an emotional turn.
Currently playing in theaters where they are open, “Kajillionaire” is now also available as a PVOD rental.
The film opens with the exploits of the Dyne family, parents Theresa and Robert (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), stealing packages from a post office. While pulling off a scam involving a fake lost-luggage claim against an airline, the three of them meet the buoyant, buzzy Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is intrigued by their unusual lifestyle. Melanie and Old Dolio grow closer, as Old Dolio slowly begins to understand all of the ways her parents have raised her for their very specific life outside conventional society while also withholding affection and intimacy.
Eventually Old Dolio begins to pull away from her parents and seems to be heading toward a relationship with Melanie. Robert and Theresa invite Old Dolio and Melanie to dinner, giving Old Dolio gifts they had never given her through the years. But later the parents also rob Melanie’s apartment, leaving only their gifts for Old Dolio. When she returns everything they gave her, it comes to the total of $525, Old Dolio’s share of the $1,575 from the luggage scam. With a kiss with Melanie, her new life begins.
In a sense there is a secret movie nestled inside the movie in “Kajillionaire,” as the comedy about a family of grifters transforms into a romantic story of self-discovery.
“I feel it’s sort of two romances parallel, one with her parents, this kind of really bittersweet breakup, parallel with the romance of the two women,” said July. “And that’s true to the end, that they are really tied together through to 525. In seeing that, [Old Dolio] is kind of released into the world.
“Why did I do that? I love a romance,” July said. “I’ll pretty much read or watch anything that has the motor of a romance in it, but you can get a lot of other stuff in there, that even I might not want to write about or think about, that is kind of difficult or icky — the family stuff. But the romance, and I don’t just mean it’s like a sugar coating, it really opened my heart. There’s a vulnerability and I so wanted that.”
I love a romance.
— Miranda July on her film ‘Kajillionaire’
For Wood, the importance of that shift into romance was apparent from the first time she read the script.
“It felt that we were filming two different movies almost,” Wood said. “There’s the movie with me and Richard and Debra, and in Miranda’s treatment it was very clear that you were going to feel that sense of isolation and this uneasy feeling around her parents, it was going to feel slightly suffocating. And then when it transitioned into this other world, the whole movie changes, ’cause that’s when Old Dolio is alive.”
For Robert and Theresa, including Old Dolio in their scams is, as July put it, their “love language.” So they express their affection for their daughter by putting her through one more scheme, and give her gifts that they know she will return for her share of the money. When they finally express affection toward Old Dolio at their dinner, saying nice things to her, it’s left vague as to whether they really mean it or if it’s just another ploy.
“It’s funny, me and Richard discussed that a lot. He has to give this big speech, and I felt like both things could be true,” said July. “I’ve had experience with that kind of narcissist where it’s all true in the moment and you’re both moved to tears. It’s just not going to change anything. I’m sort of curious in this movie about what is real, when they pretend to be a family. I don’t know, it’s confusing even to me.
“And I guess as an artist, as a believer in artists, I think things that are not real can make real things happen — like movies can create real change,” said July. “And so that is true in this movie — things don’t have to be 100% true to be real or to create transformation.”
Wood added of Old Dolio’s interactions with her parents, “It can be very confusing because they’re incredibly gifted at seeming sincere. And sometimes they have convinced themselves that what they’re doing is loving. So it might come across that way. And usually they know what to say to manipulate you. So I don’t know if it’s as cut-and-dry as if they mean it or not. I think what they’ve done and how they’ve raised her in their mind was an act of love, and turned out to be incredibly abusive.”
July wrote the screenplay to “Kajillionaire” after working on her debut novel, “The First Bad Man.” She said she came away from that experience enjoying the twists and turns of plot mechanics more than she had while writing her previous screenplays for “Me and You and Everyone We Know” and “The Future.” But she also became keenly aware while writing “Kajillionaire” just how tricky the shift in tone throughout the movie was going to be, building and building to that final moment at the cash register.
Past a certain point of this movie, it all has to work to all build up to that final shot.
— Miranda July on finding the structure of “Kajillionaire”
“When I was writing it, I was like, ‘This better work,’ because this is not like other movies where you could keep changing stuff around in any number of ways. Past a certain point of this movie, it all has to work to all build up to that final shot. I remember watching the [rough-cut] assembly, which is always just such a disaster, and wanting to go jump out a window, but realizing that the ending works. So that was the only thing that I knew.
“I couldn’t fix it if that didn’t work. And even in the roughest stage, I was like, ‘OK, so we’re working toward that.’”
Having premiered in January and originally scheduled for a summer release, “Kajillionaire” was obviously not made with the pandemic in mind, but there is something of-the-moment about a story in which a person starved for intimacy and affection finally finds some.
“I think Old Dolio has tried her whole life to be invisible to the world,” said Wood, ”but trying so hard to get approval from her parents, love has never been unconditional. It’s been very much based off of performance. So to finally have her greatest hope, and worst fear, realized — ‘Oh, I’m being seen,’ and not only am I being seen, I’m being loved — it’s just so powerful. Especially in this time now when we’re all isolated and devoid of touch and connection and these things, we’re all kind of versions of Old Dolio.”
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