BFI London Film Festival: Kajillionaire

Directed by Miranda July
Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger

by Lewis Church

Kajillionaire is an odd film, and like director Miranda July’s earlier ones (Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) it has consequently been awarded the rather unfair ‘quirky’ tag. I’m not sure that the trailer or publicity has helped it move beyond that term much, but after watching it at home as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020, to call Kajillionaire ‘quirky’ undermines the absolutely coal-black darkness at the centre of the movie.

Think of quirky and you might think of the studied aesthetic of Wes Anderson or Terry Zwigoff, of characters with odd foibles inhabited by an actor making a character turn, or static shots with meticulously composed colour palettes Kajillionaire does have those kinds of characters, from the landlord who continually breaks down in tears to the central figure of Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood, sullen and quiet in a long wig). And it also has some studied and beautifully framed shots, from tears dropping through the hole of a massage table to pink foam seeping from a ceiling – striking visuals that are beautiful and strange.

But despite the superficial trappings of a ‘quirky’ movie, its story is built on the foundation of abuse and exploitation, of addictive relationships and grievous amorality. Old Dolio is the daughter in a family trio of thieves and grifters, with Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger completing the group as her parents and exploiters of her skills and trust. Their early heists are enjoyable to watch and charming at first, but even then there is a barely repressed undercurrent of violence and manipulation at work in the family dynamic. By the time Gina Rodriguez’s character Melanie is introduced, the loneliness and fear felt by Old Dolio is obvious, as is her parent’s sociopathy. Jenkins in particular manages to convey unknowable menace without raising his voice or squaring his shoulders. The parents make their way in the world through manipulation, and it takes Melanie’s outside perspective for Old Dolio to find a way out.

The story and its conclusion are altogether quite bleak, but the inventiveness and creativity of the filmmaking prevent it from being ponderous or gruelling. Each member of the cast (particular Rodriguez and Jenkins) are fully committed to its logic and mesmerising to watch as a well-oiled ensemble. An odd film, to be sure, but far from merely ‘quirky’, and well worth the time it takes to adjust to its tone.


One Response to “BFI London Film Festival: Kajillionaire”

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