'Kajillionaire' Is A Cautionary Tale of the Great American Grift
September 24, 2020
Miranda July’s long-anticipated new film Kajillionaire opens on a shot of her main characters (a family of Los Angeles grifters) standing in front of a downtown Los Angeles Post Office. At the time July conceived the movie, the USPS was not in danger of being dismantled by the government that created it, but now looking at the stark shot of both hopelessness and hope in front of the backdrop of a great American institution, it feels as though the film could be a comment on the greater grift America is currently experiencing.
July’s Kajillionaire is more succinctly a commentary on a very dysfunctional family. One that subsists on small-time cons and petty crimes, and lacks any form of physical connectedness or praise among them. They are a family by birth and marriage only, loosely dependent on each other for survival, but void of physical love. This most deeply affects the family’s only daughter, Old Dolio, played by an unrecognizable Evan Rachel Wood. While July has an embarrassment of casting riches in this piece, the movie is Wood’s showcase, bringing a captivating humanity to a broken-hearted Old Dolio, whose only chance to portray excellence so far in life has been in the world of petty crime.
It’s hard not to project the current state of the world onto this strange, barely functioning family. They could indeed be a metaphor for the American dream, broken before it ever truly had a chance to hit its full stride. This is a family haunted by loneliness, a group that has fallen through the cracks, a trio that all at once sticks out like a sore thumb, but has also been forgotten by society at large. The group gets by living in an office space next to a factory that constantly seeps bubbles into their living space. What makes you root for these people is while most would see a disaster of a living situation, they see an opportunity. The barely habitable quarters allow them to run a grift for free and discounted rent, and in an anti-capitalist world of their own rules, that’s fine by them.
What will also break the heart is the overwhelming loneliness that seeps into their existence on the fringes of society. These three are a reminder that when you have very little, the only person you have room to look out for is yourself (even if you claim to split everything three ways, as Old Dolio’s parents have done since her childhood).
July says the family unit is not always what we expect. “This was the first movie I’ve written as both a mother and a daughter, and I was looking at the loneliness within families and the inherent betrayal built into the family structure.”
Betrayal is also a built-in fact; a way of life, for grifters. July is no stranger to cons herself. “When I was in my 20s and more of a punk, I was in a world that was not super legal and a lot of these scams which are all pretty petty are not unfamiliar to me. Some of them I just completely made up.” July admits she’s run the scam of cashing in on traveler’s insurance after pretending to lose bags in baggage claim back in the day. This same scam in the film lures Melanie (played by the endlessly empathetic Gina Rodriguez) to join up with the family to help make her own Oceans 11 dreams come true.
It’s also Melanie that brings hope to Old Dolio for a different way of life. “There’s definitely a generational divide in the movie,” says July. “The parents are very self-righteous in defending their dysfunctional way of doing things. The younger people in the movie have to start their own thing. You can tell that’s the happiest ending for them. They can’t reform the parents.”
It is Melanie and Old Dolio who provide the film with the most hope. If you can’t out master the master con people, break rank. And they do, in the most glorious way possible. It’s radical love that becomes the revolution in Kajillionaire, and the people who are most rewarded seem to inherently know that you cannot measure wealth with money or things.
It’s also electric attraction that drives this engine of hope, and July states it’s also the duality of attraction and repulsion. “Old Dolio is always doing and saying things that betray what’s going on with her. She’s not always conscious of her true feelings. I think the second Melanie sees Old Dolio in her track suit—her own clothes, not a disguise—she looks queer to Melanie. She looks kinda hot. All of these things that Old Dolio would never be aware of turn out to be kind of correct… She has this abrupt vulnerability and people want to help her in a way.”
While Kajillionaire is a stark portrayal of a family on the skids, it’s also, like most July movies, served with a side of optimism and faith that things can work out even in the bleakest of circumstances. July believes humanity will survive our current struggles with loneliness, as well.
“I think we will come out of this with more empathy and clarity, I think we already know that now of who was already suffering before, and who is now only suffering more. We’ve walked out into the light, and I don’t think you can go back. If we can recover, I think there’s hope, yes indeed.”
The idea that some people can change and adapt is offered at the end of Kajillionaire.
“Old Dolio definitely keeps transforming. She becomes the life of the party and this whole new side of her has come out. And maybe one day her parents are invited over to witness this, and there’s nothing they can do but just sit there awkwardly… I think the idea of the grift is safe and comfortable, but the trick is to overcome it and know that something can be uncomfortable and new and that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.”
Ultimately, July reminds us that everyone has the power to stop or start their own grift addiction. The con is not endless, and that indeed is a great relief.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/