Scams ‘R’ Us

Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez bring heart and heartache to the quirky charms of ‘Kajillionaire.’

Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins
Directed by Miranda July
In limited theatrical release Friday, Sept. 25

So what’s a kajillionaire?

Someone with a lot of money—a lot more money than the Dolios, a family of small-time grifters, scammers and subsistence-level thieves, have ever seen.

“Most people want to kazillionaires,” says Robert, the Dolio dad. “I prefer to just skim.”

In this quirky, colorful, character-driven tale that’s already won film-festival raves, Robert (Richard Jenkins), wife Theresa (Debra Winger) and their 20-something daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), eek out a meager living in Los Angeles, where they mostly get by on selling things they’ve pilfered from a local post office.

The Dolios are barely a notch above living on the street; their “home” is a shabby, abandoned space of rundown office cubicles adjacent to a factory, where each day they are faced with a comically endless task: cleaning up an overflow of pink bubbles that comes cascading through the wall from next door.

If only those billowing bubbles were money. The Dolios are three months behind on their rent, but Old Dolio—you’ll find out eventually how she got such an unusual name—comes upon an idea, an insurance scam, that might net them some sizably bigger bucks. That’s how they happen to cross paths with Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a young Latinx woman who’s roped in by the oddball allure of these eccentric “outlaw” characters—and titillated by the prospect of bringing some sizzle into her own humdrum life.

“I’m super-psyched!” Melanie gushes, admitting how much she loves the Oceans 11 heist movies.

You many not be familiar with writer/director Miranda July unless you follow the independent film circuit, but she’s made a couple of well-received art-house features (The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know) and numerous short films, and has acted in others, including Madeline’s Madeline (2018). Back behind the camera again for her first feature film in nine years, she returns with this audaciously engaging, eccentrically original, nearly unclassifiable yarn that walks a delicate line between humor and heartache as we discover the wrenching disfunctions of the Dolio clan. Their quirks, tics and oddities seem almost whimsical at first, but it soon becomes clear that Old Dolio is almost a feral child who’s grown into full adulthood without ever experiencing the love, affection and attention of a “real” mother and father.

The off-kilter family dynamic is thrown into an even wonkier tailspin when mom and dad Dolio take more of a shine to the newcomer, Melanie, than they do to their own daughter. But since Melanie is the first person who’s ever treated Old Dolio with anything resembling compassion or kindness, the two young women form an unlikely bond.

Wood, who rose to TV stardom as a robot who outsmarts her human programmers in HBO’s Emmy-winning sci-fi series Westworld, provides the emotional core of the movie, dressing in baggy, shaggy, shapeless boys’ clothes and talking in a low, husky voice to play the emotionally stunted daughter. Her whole performance suggests someone who didn’t have a conventional childhood, to say the least, raised to be a petty criminal, taught to be invisible and undetectable not only to security cameras, but to everyone. She’s an outcast and a misfit, distressed in almost every way, and you cheer on her halting, difficult quest to break out of her shell of invisibility into the bigger, brighter world.

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood

Rodriguez, the critically lauded star of TV’s Jane the Virgin, brings kilowatts of enthusiastic pop as Melanie, who’s sexier, showier, more successful—with a real job—and far more “sophisticated.” But she too has her own needs for connecting with something, and someone, beyond herself and outside her tiny, closed-in apartment.

As different as they seem to be, and as they certainly are, Old Dolio and Melanie find out how much they actually have in common.

And that’s really what this surprisingly charming movie is really all about. It’s a paean to the oddball and misfit in anyone and everyone, to all who’ve ever felt like they didn’t belong or fit in—with their mother and father, or with the world. It’s about family and parenting and raising kids, all the way back to the moment babies pop out of their mamas. It’s about breaking with addictive, toxic relationships. It’s about people who hear “Mr. Lonely,” the old Bobby Vinton song, and can hopefully remember it’s how their lives used to be, not how they are now. 

And it’s about how the real kajillionaires are people lucky enough to find someone to love, and someone to love them back.

This sneaky little L.A. story—about a family that steals, scams and skims—will sneak up on you, for sure, and steal a little piece of your heart.

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