Director: Miranda July
This comedy is so dark it hurts on an emotional level while its little bursts of sunshine actually make your heart sing as the main character of ‘Kajillionaire’, an appallingly abused young woman whose parents have raised her to be a part of their small-time scamming unit, goes on a revelatory journey to self-discovery.
The film is a wonderful intersection of psychological awakening and an illustration of how abuse and neglect affect a child; and in typical style of director Miranda July, she wraps it all in a story with brilliantly quirky set design and the most wonderful script and casting.
July’s direction and cinematography takes filmic expressionism a few steps beyond, say, a darkly lit alleyway throwing a shadow on a wall and other stylistic clichés with which we are so familiar - but her original and startling technique never detracts from her all-engulfing stories.
Our family of con-artists live in a dirt cheap room, curtesy of Bubbles Inc for $500 a month. At a certain time each day, pink foam oozes from the walls and the family scrapes the muck away with buckets. By the way, the family is also tardy in their rent $1500 and are facing eviction.
It is just another day ‘at the scam office’ and the silent, awkward daughter Old Dolio is thrown into two revealing scenarios (‘Old Dolio’ is played by Evan Rachel Wood and she is named so strangely in the film in the hope she would be left something by the original 'Old Dolio' in his will). The first telling moment is where she tries to scam an exchange on an expensive massage and ends of on the massage table. We soon find out that touch causes her extreme pain and it is only when the masseur runs her hands in space above her body that she can bare the closeness of contact. The second is in a birthing seminar she is attending as her parents have negotiated with a young mother-to be that she impersonates the absent pregnant girl. Old Dolio is fixated by a scene of a new-born being placed on the mother’s bare stomach.
Old Dolio goes home and questions her parents Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) and we soon find that the family has had a peculiar approach to child raising. Old Dolio has never received physical tenderness, has always been treated as a functional component of the family scamming unit, has never received birthday presents, etc., and has been brought up with a mythology of living in fear of the ‘big one’, an earthquake that will crush California. However, Old Dolio believes – as most of us do – that her parents have brought her up in this way as it is their truthful rendering of what life is. She rationalises that they respect her too much to have ever treated her as a baby and deceive her.
On a scam to lose luggage on a trip and be refunded $1500 through insurance (for that overdue rent), the family meet a force of nature ….. a young, curvaceous, life-loving girl Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who quickly becomes a part of their scamming unit and whose intersection with their lives turns the family upside down.
A particularly creepy scene involves this young lady, Old Dolio’s parents and a jacuzzi … Yep! It is cringe-inducing to an extreme but the older couple have met their match in Melanie.
To counteract the more gross elements in the film – remember, for all the confronting moments it essentially is a (very) black comedy – there are also moments of astonishing beauty. My favourite is when the two very different young women are cloaked in darkness in an abandoned bathroom and they experience an earthquake that Old Dolio feels is the ‘big one’. The emotionally challenged young woman tells her new friend how easy it is for her to say goodbye to life; how she never really made any memories that anchor her; no images of herself with others, friends or family that would make her want to stay. In the pitch darkness we suddenly discern tiny stars appearing as Old Dolio shares her vulnerability and pain.
The scene after this, when the rumbles subside and they go out into a blindingly sunny day feels almost like a rebirth – even from the vantage of a seat in the theatre it is obviously a pivotal moment rendered miraculously.
And the ending? After so much darkly disturbing content, the final few frames will make you glow, as a romantic awakening unfurls before your eyes.
Confronting. Painful. Eventually full of hope.
I loved 'Kajillionaire'.