Written by Jacob Horrocks
“Most people want to be Kajillionaires. That’s the dream.”
In 1721, a Scottish woman named Maggie Dickson was hung for the crime of concealing a pregnancy, declared to be dead, her body placed in a wooden coffin, and was carted to the churchyard. On the way to her burial, she woke up and the law determined that she had fulfilled her sentence. She would live another 40 years as ‘Half-hangit Maggie’…
Kajillionaire was released in 2020, as the third film directed by acclaimed filmmaker, Miranda July. It stars Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez as a family of grifters, living it tough in Los Angeles. They skim what they need, they worry about “The Big One”, and they adhere their lives to a self-evident code: the modern way of things is not working.
Last year, in Australia, the national gender pay gap sat at 13.4% amidst a “gender apathy” and seems unlikely to close for another 26 years. This is a real imbalance, and these are historical crimes. We are amid a post-scarcity, post-gender world, but still, we fear that we will not have enough, or will have less than our neighbour. Kajillionaire does not unburden these imbalances in the world, but it does place itself in their orbit, separated from the boulevards of other arthouse, LA-based capers like Drive or Ingrid Goes West. Instead, it is a potent discovery of the pressures of being a father in a female family, of being a mother immune to human touch, and of being a daughter longing to know them both. It is forthcoming with a modern strain of existentialism, where its characters must form their own individual meanings. Death seems to be inescapable, but a deserving ending. It is simple, but significant, and a film I have thought about for close to a year now.
As with July’s other works, Kajillionaire is very twee, quirky, and delightfully sincere. Her perceptiveness and creative concerns here are original, and honest. The setting of Los Angeles experiences small earthquakes that roll across the landscape, tremors that rock storefronts and airports and gas stations. Yet to pay attention through cinematographer Sebastian Winterø’s lens to the extras and background characters, you would not know they were occurring, suggesting they are far more internalised. The film’s score by Emile Mosseri fluctuates between vulnerable and empowering—it has bubble-gum notes set in between sensational arrangements, and every synthesised chord is matched with a human voice. Production design from Sam Lisenco is delectable (the family’s office space nest leaks a pink, bubbly substance that almost demeans the ideal of urban living). Although, to strip the film of these elements and its heavy indictment of capitalism and to really absorb its layers, it is a piece about a young woman learning about her own nature through a nurturing relationship. It is stylish, spellbinding, and tender, with hidden queer subtext.
As with July’s other works, Kajillionaire is very twee, quirky, and delightfully sincere.
Mind you, this is a heist movie, and a vastly entertaining one. The trio rob post offices, hustle an airline for luggage insurance, shake down a kindly masseuse. During one extended scene, after the Kajillionaire family have enlisted a fourth member, Melanie (Rodriguez), they break into an old man’s house, only to find him close to death, hidden away, in need of that familiar glow his house would have had before his family grew up and left him alone. The man is untroubled by their intentions, he simply wishes they perform for him the old noises as he dies: washing dishes, asking about school, watching the game. The scene rings with assurance, the frame lilting with a soft glow, but also a deep sadness, not only for its absence from Old Dolio’s (Wood’s character) upbringing, but for how clearly performative it seems when juxtaposed with most households today.
In an early scene in the film, Old Dolio attends a parenting class. It is during these sessions that she learns of the breast crawl, in which a baby, when placed on their mother’s stomach, will learn to crawl to the breast, and we learn of the origins of Old Dolio’s name. Old Dolio then seems punished from birth, like the repressed offspring of David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton and Scarlett Johansson’s The Female, and Wood defies all expectations of feminine behaviour—her hair grows past her shoulders and parts down the middles, she slouches, her clothes sag, she spends most of the film in a bleak tracksuit, her fingernails are untended, her voice is deeply toned, and she resists eye contact. This way she almost feels responsible for the film’s tone. She learns early on from her mother (Winger) that when a man gives you wood, anything made of wood, he is saying “you give him wood”. All of which colour her desperation for honest, meaningful connection, in which she is not someone’s child, but her own person. She learns to breast crawl, but it is towards a new mother, Melanie, who will provide for her. I cry every time during these scenes that begin to give Old Dolio her catharsis and autonomy.
The character of Melanie is where the film’s themes come to meet. Melanie is a well-groomed and confident woman, loved by her families, and at first, she spikes a verve of jealousy in Old Dolio. But across the film, this transitions into an awakening of all the special, reassuring and especially sexual sensations Old Dolio has been missing—Melanie validates her as a friend, and possibly, as a lover. Where July leaves the story, after a year of national isolation, of passive relationships and virtualised social events, the film must tug at the absences we have felt. To see two emotionally budded women dance and make pancakes and share a room, after Evan Rachel Wood’s own off-screen experiences of domestic abuse, sexual assault and grooming have reached the public, is wholly powerful. At a time where gender roles and gender identities, identity politics, consent, gender coding and queer coding are being reclaimed to the individual, Old Dolio is a special character. She lets us know that the value of a life comes from empathy, and the beautiful person we nurture within ourselves. Since we are not defined by a gender, by a sexuality or by family, but by who we are when we are loved.‘
Old Dolio might be my ode to all the women that I’ve been in love with’, says July. America’s problems are not Australia’s, but in their margins are the same, shared history of victims. Kajillionaire does then what all successful art does, it generates empathy in those margins.
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