The family at the centre of Kajillionaire, the latest feature from acclaimed indie filmmaker Miranda July, is one of the oddest to appear on the big screen for quite some time. Comprised of two parents and their adult daughter, the Dynes clan are characterised by a long list of eccentricities: they live in a room adjoined to a bizarre bubble factory, they name their daughter ‘Old Dolio’ after an elderly lottery winner, and, most crucially, they spend their days engaging in a number of intricately arranged scams to piece together enough money to pay their permanently bawling landlord. If you’re not familiar with the work of July then be warned – this is quirky with a capital Q.
The plot of Kajillionaire is slight but effective: while partaking in one of their more elaborate scams, which sees them fly to and from New York so they can claim insurance money when their luggage goes ‘missing’, the Dynes come across Melanie, an altogether more regular person played by Gina Rodriguez. Melanie is curious if slightly wary about this unusual clan and soon finds herself becoming a sort of extended family member, equipped with her own ideas for some new scamming operations. Melanie’s favourite films, she tells the Dynes, are the Oceans 11 trilogy, and you sense that she sees her encounter with the family as an exciting diversion from her own relatively banal existence.
What follows is a disruption to the Dynes’ usual family dynamic, with Old Dolio unhappy about Melanie’s sudden prominence in the family. As the plot develops, though, the daughter gradually becomes allied with the newcomer, in the progress starting to properly question her relationship with her parents and the path her life is taking for the first time.
There’s a very particular brand of idiosyncratic quirkiness at play which might be hard for some viewers to get on board with, and it can certainly take some time to adjust to the film’s decidedly off-kilter atmosphere and rhythm. But you’ll be surprised by how much the emotional core of the film really creeps up on you as it moves towards its climax, and in its final act there are several moments which are genuinely moving and unexpectedly tender.
A large part of the film’s success on that front can be put down to the four excellent performances at its centre. Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger are inch perfect in their portrayal of parents Robert and Theresa. These characters are oddballs, and not always of the likeable sort, but Jenkins and Winger do well to imbue them with at least some degree of humanity when they could so very easily have become nothing more than caricatures.
Meanwhile perhaps the most difficult job falls to Evan Rachel Wood, whose character Old Dolio is a particular enigma – with little knowledge of normal life. Wood’s performance is terrific, especially in the film’s latter stages as the character becomes to come into her own. The star of the show, however, is the wonderfully charismatic Gina Rodriguez, whose likeable and cheery presence is a welcome antidote to the often difficult-to-comprehend foibles of the Dynes family, lending the film a more accessible, human edge.
For all but Miranda July die-hards the humour will be a bit hit and miss – and even the funniest moments will be more likely to raise amused smiles than hearty guffaws, but there are some undoubtedly joyous moments. A scene where Old Dolio enters a convenience store after a small earthquake, believing she has just encountered a near-death experience, is a particular triumph – both in terms of its comic effect, but also in that it finally allows us to see a more free and unrestrained version of Old Dolio.
At times the quirkiness also masks a darker undercurrent – there is a particularly uncomfortable scene regarding a hot tub – and the film is often ambiguous in its judgement on the behaviour of the family, and where to draw the line between zany and creepy. How much audiences will get out of this is likely to vary depending on their tolerance for quirkiness, but for those who can get along with the wackiness on show it is ultimately a very rewarding film.
Kajillionaire is showing in cinemas now. Find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.