Reviewed by: Jane Fae

"Kajillionaire is strong, disturbing stuff." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

There are many things that make me squirm. Most things surgical – and especially medical dramas in which broken bones protrude whitely through the skin. Harm – and cruelty – to animals. Discordant music, and nails down a blackboard. Not forgetting awkwardness: individuals twisting their way through untruth and embarrassment. Dishonesty. Emotional cruelty.

And now I must add one more. Kajillionnaire is a film that, from the outset is grounded in squirmy squeamishness. At its heart is a dysfunctional, awful family. Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) are a pair of eccentric grifters. There is not one single aspect of their introverted, selfish lives that is obtained honestly. Everything is scammed, stolen or defrauded from the unsuspecting punters around them.

Accomplice and victim is their daughter, Old Dolio, so named after a homeless friend who won big on the lottery, and whom they hoped might just be so impressed by this artful christening that he would gift them some of his winnings. Because that is the sum total of what Old Dolio means to the two, yet another device to be turned and used in their crookedness, rather than loved and cherished as she ought to be.

As Robert explains, proudly: “Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned to write”. Meanwhile, mum, Theresa, justifies never having showed any maternal care or emotion towards her daughter because…well, because she mustn’t grow up to be fake. Or was it Robert who said that?

It is hard to tell. The couple are like two peas in a rotten shrivelled old pod. And Old Dolio is every bit as stunted, repressed and incapable of normal feelings as you should expect a young woman to be, who has been raised for 26 years within the confines of such relentless abuse. For that is what this is, a study in abusiveness. And though you may begin by smiling knowingly at the foolishness of their little scams and the self-deceit, many of you will end squirming with the discomfort of what you are viewing.

Into the midst of this dysfunctionality arrives Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Melanie has mother issues of her own but next to Old Dolio, hers is a model of familial perfection. Her role in this is to act as both potential victim and catalyst for change. Because from the moment the four of them are thrown together, there begins a complex quadrille as each, more or less knowingly, sizes up the others.

Melanie fancies Old Dolio: at least, it looks that way. Robert and Theresa fancy Melanie. But is it lust? Or is she just singled out as the latest mark in their long catalogue of victims? As for Old Dolio? Who knows quite what it is she wants, because the very idea of wanting any thing for herself has been bred out of her completely.

Will Melanie be ripped off? Will Old Dolio find happiness? Will her parents lay their hands on the rent, due the very next day?

These are the basic plot elements thrown together in this offbeat and quirky bleak comedy by writer, director and multidisciplinary artist Miranda July. There are some laughs: though mostly groans, as you gaze in appalled fascination at the on-screen action. They wouldn’t. Surely not? Oh my God, they really went there!

I thought the low point was the hour or so spent playing happy families in the home of an old guy on a ventilator:, playing happy families as they waited for him to die. Believe me, they can, and do, sink lower.

Kajillionaire is strong, disturbing stuff. You may like it. You may hate it. Miranda July has a reputation for dividing audiences and evoking strong feelings.

I would be surprised if you left a viewing of it without having some very definite views on what you just watched. The writing is intelligent. The focus, for all its off-centredness, is fair and square on family and family dynamics, as the spotlight shines not just on Old Dolio’s family, but every other family they meet along the way.

Did I say spotlight? July uses light and dark to great effect, especially during what is clearly intended as a rebirthing scene. A strong soundtrack, too, under the musical direction of Emile Mosseri, who combines newer artists such as Erik Hachikian and Summer Mastous with classics such as Mr Lonely from Bobby Vinton, effectively.

Reviewed on: 15 Oct 2020
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Kajillionaire packshot
Low-stakes grifters, Old Dolio and her parents invite a chipper young woman into their insular clan, only to have their entire world turned upside down.
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