by Kathy Li | November 15, 2020
“When I was a child, it was clear to me that life was not worth living if we did not know love,” bell hooks writes in the preface of her book All About Love: New Visions. “I wish I could testify that I came to this awareness because of the love I felt in my life. But it was love’s absence that let me know how much love mattered.”
Most coming-of-age stories deal with adolescence — that tumultuous period in a person’s life marked by growth, uncertainty, and lots of firsts. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (2020) is the rare exception to the rule, a coming-of-age story about a socially stunted 26-year-old woman who spends every waking minute with her parents, but lacks the crucial ingredient that actually holds families together, even across great physical distances: love.
The love between a parent and a child is rarely eulogized in the same way as love of a romantic nature; we might fantasize about finding The One, but we probably wouldn’t be as forthcoming about our desire for a better relationship with our parents (unless it was the butt of a therapy-centric joke, maybe). Kajillionaire makes the case that the scars of parental neglect, invisible as they may be, are no less formative, or less deeply felt, than any other kind of heartbreak.
The film revolves around three small-time con artists, Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) and her parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), who make their living by stealing packages, entering prize giveaways, and taking on odd gigs, like attending a maternity class for an expectant mother. The latter, incidentally, helps Old Dolio realize the extent of her own mother’s negligence. While on a plane ride to carry out an elaborate travel-insurance scheme, the Dynes meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a retail worker with big dreams who’s not above devising a heist or two of her own. Robert and Theresa eagerly welcome Melanie into the fold (much to Old Dolio’s envy), treating her like a surrogate daughter. However, when even that relationship sours, Melanie and Old Dolio embark on a journey of their own. Melanie goes from Old Dolio’s competition to her savior of sorts, opening her eyes to just how unhealthy her familial environment has been all along.
Kajillionaire is a Trojan horse of a movie, wrapping profound revelations in the easy-to-swallow outer shell of surreal comedy and deadpan dialogue. There’s a subtly anarchist bent to the storytelling, too. Old Dolio’s parents aren’t subpar human beings because they commit mail theft or struggle to pay rent on time, the film seems to imply. These are simply indicators of material poverty, not a lack of emotional acuity. The inability to provide for a child financially isn’t a parent’s fatal flaw. Instead, Robert and Theresa’s worst offense may be their cold, entirely detached treatment of their daughter, who has never so much as received a birthday present or an “I love you” in her 26 years of life. They see Old Dolio as nothing more than a cog in their perpetual machine, and their relationship to her boils down to a business arrangement — she helps them steal, they pocket a share of the profits. When Melanie grills Old Dolio on what it is that makes Robert and Theresa her parents, all Old Dolio can offer is, “We split everything three ways.”
In one particularly telling scene, as we watch Old Dolio replicate a stranger’s signature with eerie precision, her father begins to boast about her forging abilities. “Isn’t that amazing?” Robert says, mostly for Melanie’s benefit as she looks on. “Old Dolio learned to forge before she learned to write. That’s actually how she did learn to write.” In his short-sightedness as a parent, Robert fails to see the banality of his statement: all children, in effect, learn to write by imitating others — it’s just never referred to as forgery. Rather than taking joy in the simple developmental milestone of a child learning to write, Robert can only see his daughter through the prism of utility. In his eyes, she is only remarkable because of how she makes herself useful to him.
But Miranda July isn’t a pessimist, and Kajillionaire gets about as close as it can to a happy ending. With the introduction of Melanie the interloper, the film makes the case for the chosen family over the biological one. Old Dolio may have been born to two people incapable of expressing love in all the conventional ways, but the decision to extricate herself from them is all it takes to break the pattern. As we watch her begin to enumerate her own wants and needs, and shed herself of the cynicism and paranoia that shape her parents’ worldview, it becomes increasingly clear that Kajillionaire is the story of Old Dolio’s liberation.
I watched Kajillionaire in a nearly deserted theater decimated by the coronavirus, and it left me with the sense that the filmmay have (unintentionally) arrived at exactly the right moment. As the pandemic rages on, we are all learning to renegotiate our spatial relationships. What gets lost in the flurry of sobering statistics and the public-health guidelines for quarantine and self-isolation (all extremely vital, let’s be clear) is the effect that confinement can have on the psyche. Data has shown that domestic violence is on the rise, and for the most vulnerable segments of the population, especially those confined to urban dwellings — with just a few hundred square feet to call their own — the distress must be compounded by how much it has gone unaddressed. What happens to us when some of the most basic gestures of intimacy (a hug, a kiss on the cheek) are off-limits? What do we lose when there is an unseen, but deadly, barrier between us and our loved ones, yet we lack the forum to property address that loss? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it feels like Kajillionaire might offer a blueprint for the way forward. Old Dolio grew up knowing no intimacy and had to learn to articulate love for the first time in her late 20s, but if she can do it, it makes me hopeful that those of us in the real world will eventually find our way back to each other.