Friday, September 25, 2020


 by Rob DiCristino

“We can only ever be how we are. But we love you, and we wish you well.”

A frail man lays on his deathbed. He’s at home, thankfully, not in some sterile hospital affair with the cables and tubes. Through his half-open bedroom door come the sounds of dishes clinking and people talking. Someone is playing a peaceful tune on the piano. The TV is on. A young woman sits solemnly at this man’s side, encouraging him to let go when he feels that it’s time. She waits with him in the silence. For many of us, this is the ideal scenario for our last moments: A long, well-lived life. A home filled with family members who will care for each other after we’re gone. A warm hand in our own as we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Trouble is, this isn’t his family.
The people in his home are con artists, self-described “skimmers” who are taking advantage of his weakened state in an attempt to rob him. The voices in the kitchen are Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger), each of them busy searching for trinkets and other items of potential value. On the piano is Melanie Whitacre (Gina Rodriguez), their new accomplice. This was her idea. She’s a retail clerk who knows which of her customers are homebound and suggests potential targets. The young girl in the bedroom is Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), whose parents sent her in there to find the man’s checkbook. Witnessing a genuine moment of humanity for maybe the first time in her twenty-six years, Old Dolio is uncomfortable and a little put off: “Life is nothing,” she tells him. “Just let it go without really thinking about it.”

And she means it. For Old Dolio (whose name comes with a story too good to spoil here), each day is just a series of scams and cons that will keep her afloat for the next twenty-four hours. The Dynes wake every day in an abandoned office building adjacent to a bubble factory. A pink, oozing soap mixture leaks periodically through the shared wall, and their willingness to scrape it off is a key condition of their rental agreement. Setting out into Los Angeles in the same clothes they wore yesterday, the three of them steal from PO boxes, return supposedly stolen items for rewards, and barter with other members of The Less Fortunate. Old Dolio has never even dreamed of an education or a career. She has no friends and no desire to make any. Life is transactional, she insists. Items have utility, or they do not. People have utility, or they do not. “What is Melanie’s utility?”, she wonders when her parents add the bubbly girl to the team. What does she bring to the table that Old Dolio doesn’t?
At its core, Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is a brilliant and deeply unnerving examination of emotional trauma passed from parent to child. The Dynes are fundamentally broken and joyless people chewed up and spit out by an economy that had no use for them. Robert and Theresa responded to that rejection in kind, raising Old Dolio to look down on those who kowtow to the system and spend their lives trying to be “kajillionaires.” She gets no birthday presents. No special treats. No hugs or kisses. Instead, she learned to forge signatures and avoid security cameras. She lives paralyzed with fear of “the big one,” an earthquake that Robert insists will eventually come to consume them all. She does not feel inherently special. Her value feels contingent on her utility to her family. “I wasn’t hooked [on life, so death isn’t] such a big deal to me,” she tells Melanie in a dark moment. “You’re gonna miss sex and dancing and pancakes. But I’m not gonna be sad.” Old Dolio seems resigned to the dark, recognizing both her spiritual emptiness and her inability to change it.

But then there’s Melanie, the working girl who latches onto the Dynes in hopes of living out an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist fantasy. Old Dolio is right not to trust her, at first. What would a person this bright and vivacious, a person who walks and talks like a proverbial kajillionaire, want with their discarded airline crackers and leaking hot tub? It’s true that her fascination with Dynes doesn’t make a lot of sense right away (After all, they walk around like the cast of Parasite dipped in Greasy Strangler batter), but the more we get to know Melanie, the more we see a thematic parallel to Old Dolio’s own trauma: Melanie is a nurturer, a giver. Her FaceTime sessions with mom are overwhelming marathons of affectionate one-upmanship, and her willingness to open her home and heart to these strange people reflects an aching urge to love and be loved in return. Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez steals nearly every scene she’s in, lending Melanie more than enough warmth and lyricism to breathe life into Kajillionaire’s universe of fluorescent hopelessness.
In the end, we realize that writer/director Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) is telling us a few different stories. One is about the complicated relationship between parent and child: We can’t help but pass on our quirks and idiosyncrasies, nor can we entirely detach ourselves from those of our parents. Another is about the dangerous absence of self-awareness: Old Dolio is sexually repressed, emotionally scarred, and psychologically abused, but she can’t cope with that trauma until she recognizes that she’s traumatized. Still another is about action versus intent: The Dynes don’t wish their daughter harm, but that doesn’t make their actions less misguided or their tactics less insidious. Kajillionaire is a growing up story and a coming out story. It’s about resentment and pain, forgiveness and acceptance. Its cathartic final moments are a middle finger to an indifferent universe, a reaffirmation of self love, and reminder that tiny gestures can hold enormous value.


  1. I was completely unaware of this film. Based on your review it sounds like the flip side of the coin to 'Shoplifters', which I loved very much. Also I'm totally down for Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez and Debra Frikken Winger in a Miranda July film. Thank you!

    1. It’s definitely in the SHOPLIFTERS wheelhouse. Hope you enjoy!

  2. This sounds SO GOOD! I'm excited to watch it. Thanks for the review, Rob!

  3. Love the way you framed this article. Haven’t seen a lot, but this is my favorite of the year so far. Seeing a Miranda July movie at a drive-in was a trip!