Pink foam spills from the walls of a side room of a bubble factory. The Dyne family, small-time con artists living on the periphery of society, have holed up here for minimal rent. Three times a day they fill buckets of foam and drain them in the center of the room. Their meager lifestyle, endorsed by small stakes thievery and the driving purpose to become “kajillionaires”, is broadly detailed, without specific descriptions. We never find out why, or how, they have cultivated such an odd, counter-culture lifestyle. Kajillionaire is an external story. It won’t let us in and if it did, we would not know what to do with it.
Taking long breaks from filmmaking for works in other media, Miranda July returns with the most clever of character constructions. Old Dolio is her name, played by a perfectly deadpan Evan Rachel Wood. She is an odd duck. She sports a worn green tracksuit and overgrown hair that streams down her back, moving awkwardly and talking cryptically, with a sardonically tinged vocal fry [July says it is Wood’s natural voice, which may mean it does not have another intention]. She is deeply uncomfortable in her own skin. Continually leveraged as a tool for big-brained schemes hatched by her parents, she has spent her whole life being taken advantage of. What absolutely works are the pairings here, her father played by a coldly funny Richard Jenkins, while Debra Winger mirrors her daughter’s pain and disillusionment, as the broken family matriarch.
We join the family while they’re embroiled in a minor mail heist which produces small rewards. A deadweight on society, they have hit the end of the road. Rent is due for their side room at the bubble factory and more than the metaphorical pink foam is now spilling over. They must plot one big con job: they’ll exploit the airport’s travel insurance claims by “losing” their luggage. Old Dolio, as it so often goes, is the pawn in their game. On the plane, they meet the eager Melanie (Gina Rodriguez, played sweetly). Melanie wants in on the con and quickly joins the fold. She’s like the daughter they never allowed themselves to have. What plays out is an off-beat family drama about inclusion and creating our own empathy and sense of worth in a world that does not care.
Formally, it has a lot in common with other high-impact stories of the moment. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s groundbreaking Shoplifters (2018) truly set the scene for a specific movement in filmmaking. His film told internal stories about the structural challenges of dispossessed Japanese families and a culture that has turned its back on those in need. The very next year, Bong Joon-ho masterfully expanded those ideas into the class conflict of Parasite, a work as acclaimed as it deserves to be. Miranda July inserts her film into the conversation but does not add any further value. A hell of a proposition when begging for comparison with two heavyweight generational talents.
Kajillionaire is always trying its damnedest. Cementing itself in corny oddball pastiches of Quirky Indie Films, there is more aesthetic decoration than there is a rhetorical purpose. July asks the audience to sit with her asocial characters as they struggle to learn about tenderness and what acceptance feels like. For this reason, it can be more than enough, and there is something to extract. But like the pink foam that permeates the walls of the bubble factory, it’s all pretty allusion, with little meat and substance.