When I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You:
“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”
It may not seem like much to you (although if you’ve ever struggled with depression, it probably does), but I never felt more seen than I did in the moment that I first read this assortment of words in this particular order. How do other people make it through? Where are they parking their bodies and coping inside of those bodies, hour after endless hour? When you’re in the bottom of your emotional well and every hour feels like days, how are you supposed to live with that? I wanted to know and even knowing that someone else wanted to know it too made me feel less isolated and alone.
The answer to that question is not found in Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s 2020 film (she is credited as both writer and director). The film tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), who was so named by her con artist parents in honor of an unhoused person who won the lottery in the hopes that their daughter would be put in his will (in vain). Her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) prides himself on having no interest in or connection to mainstream consumerism, instead preferring to reject society’s pursuit of wealth and the accompanying desire to become “kajillionaires” to instead live a life in the margins, and her mother Theresa (Debra Winger) is in complete sympatico. They’re rejection of the conventional economy extends to making their home in an inexpensive office next to a soap factory, which also includes a twice-daily scooping of soap bubble overflow that comes out of the walls into a drain in the floor. They’re not just freegans, though: they’re pickpockets, scammers, and con artists, meticulously and obsessively keeping track of surveillance cameras and performing elaborate movements to avoid being seen, largely oblivious to the fact that they stick out like sore thumbs otherwise. Since Old Dolio’s childhood, they have split everything three ways.
After attending a pregnancy preparation course taught by Dead to Me’s Diana-Maria Riva, Old Dolio starts to recognize how little her parents care for her emotional well being (read: not even a little bit). This is exacerbated when, while doing a quick airline luggage fraud scam, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and adopt her into their schemes while also immediately beginning to treat her with more tenderness and concern than their daughter, which does not escape her notice. Seemingly charmed by the thought of Hollywood-style heists, Melanie puts forth the idea of going to the homes of the lonely, elderly customers at the mall-based ophthalmology office where she works and complimenting their antiques until they offer her something of value, which the quartet could then flip. Ultimately, she finds the desperate, morally questionable actions of the Dyne clan to be seedier and less Ocean’s Eleven than she expected, but not before she develops a crush on the emotionally damaged Old Dolio. When Theresa can’t manage to use a single term of endearment for her daughter, Melanie promises to do all of that and more.
Wood is giving a solid performance here,
On a recent Lagniappe episode of the podcast in which we discussed The Other Lamb, Brandon noted that he thought that the film would fall within my wheelhouse because of my interest in cults, be it real life cults like NXIVM or fictional cults like those in The Lodge and The Endless. And it’s true, and it’s also true that, as we discussed in that episode (and in other places), although I wasn’t raised in a cult per se, I did grow up in a particular segment of Evangelical Christianity that was very particular in its beliefs, and, like the Dyne parents here, created a mythology that was not only outside of and opposed to the mainstream, but was also strictly about opposition to the mainstream as part of its ideology. What really worked for me about Kajillionaire was Robert and Theresa’s strange little beliefs and how those beliefs so heavily affected their raising of Old Dolio not as a child but as a tool. Their self-centeredness and codependence upon each other, to the point of ostracizing their daughter, is played for laughs, and it’s often funny, but it’s also horribly depressing. When Old Dolio wins a trip to New York, her earnest attempts to take the trip with just her mother is not only rebuffed by Theresa, but Robert later uses it to denigrate his daughter as part of one of his many angry diatribes about how their way of life is the only feasible way. When Old Dolio manages to graft the aforementioned lost-luggage-insurance-fraud scam onto the trip to net just enough for the family to pay their back rent, said con involves flying to NYC together and flying back separately as strangers, but George immediately insists that he and Theresa will be a couple, and Old Dolio will travel alone. Not only is an arrangement of Richard flying alone while Theresa and Old Dolio fly together not even considered, but Richard and his wife are true narcissists who only see their daughter as a prop for their “jobs,” and nothing more.
The Dynes don’t want to be “fake” people, behaving as society expects a parent to, and they find the idea of treating Old Dolio with tenderness as both artificial and patronizing, as if undignified. And I’ll be honest: that speaks to me, too. It’s probably the a reason that I am not very good with children (and wasn’t even when I was one, although there was also the bullying), as I find it hard to engage with them when the situation (very rarely, thankfully) requires me to do so. But this film carries that idea through to its inevitable dark end when applied to parenting, and although the film’s marketing makes it look like this situation will be at least somewhat charming before conflict arises, it’s clear from the earliest moments that this is completely unhealthy, and that the world within which Old Dolio is trapped is one where even the slightest kindness or touch of comfort or is completely alien to her.
There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable. In that, it’s worth a watch, although I’d wait until after its hefty rental price comes down a little.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond