Kajillionaire (2020)

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

Family (2019)

Nathan Rabin’s pop culture travelogue You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is one of my favorite books of the past decade – an incredibly empathetic portrait of two pop music subcultures who are too-often, too-openly mocked by outsiders: Phish fans & Insane Clown Posse fans. Of those two groups, it’s the juggalos who could use the empathy boost the most in their public esteem, especially after the mockery that accompanied the release of the Insane Clown Posse single “Miracles” (you know, the one with the magnets). To outsiders, juggalos are unfashionable, uncultured, low-intelligence dorks with a penchant for violence & a hideously tacky horror-clown aesthetic. The FBI even recently went as far as to classify them as a gang. By spending time amongst them on their own turf (and unexpectedly becoming a juggalo of sorts himself), Rabin discovered a different side of the much-mocked subculture. He found them to be a wide, dependable network of societal misfits who offer a chosen-family safety net to anyone who needs it. The public perception of juggalos is that they’re low-life, hedonistic criminals with no moral code. In practice, they’re shockingly wholesome and bonded by a strong sense of solidarity.

If you’re not fully convinced that gaining greater juggalo empathy is worth reading an entire book, maybe watching the 85min mainstream comedy Family is an easier sell. Orange is the New Black‘s Taylor Schilling stars as a family-negligent businesswoman whose self-absorption drives her niece to run away to become a juggalo. The film opens with a genuine, in-the-wild “You’re probably wondering how I got here” gag as Schilling stumbles through the annual juggalo convention (and open-air drug market) The Gathering in a clashing business suit & clown makeup lewk. While that introduction teases that the film will be fully immersed in the juggalo deep-end, most of its Insane Clown Posse content is saved for its final half-hour, once her wayward niece has already been indoctrinated into the “gang” as a full-blown juggalette. The movie’s eventually really sweet about juggalos as a subculture & a Family once it gets there, though, with all of the drug-addled, Faygo-soaked horror clowns banding together to help find a missing child who might be in danger. It’s an oddly touching portrait of an unfairly maligned community, one that feels very much true to how juggalos are portrayed in Rabin’s lengthier defense of their collective character.

Before its juggalo redemption arc hits its full stride, Family is fairly low-key in how it distinguishes itself as a modern comedy. Only Schilling’s presence as the family-ignoring, business-obsessed lead who eventually learns her lesson about what’s really important in life stands out as anything special, and only because Schilling pushes that archetype’s usual narcissism into an unusually dark extreme. Before it stumbles into uncharted territory at The Gathering, the film reminded me a lot of The Bronze in how it looks & acts like a normal mainstream comedy in all ways except in how it allows its lead to be incredibly selfish & cruel without worrying about whether audiences will find her “likeable.” Schilling’s absurdly self-absorbed lead is the perfect POV for a juggalo skeptic, as she’s skeptical of anything & everything that’s not a lucrative business opportunity or a tall glass of white wine. She’s deeply relatable to any of us who’ve found ourselves lashing out as closed-minded cynics who see everything in the world we’re not immediately interested in as total bullshit (I’ve been there, at least), and there’s something remarkably charming about her learning to be more open-minded & considerate from a group as low in her estimation as pot-smoking clowns who consider listening to novelty rap a lifestyle.

If Family falls short as a juggalo story, it’s in not affording as much of an inner life to the juggalette-niece character, played by Bryn Vale. She’s broadly characterized as an awkward social outcast in search of an empowering identity, so it makes sense that she’d find comfort in the all-accepting, outcast-embracing juggalo Family. A movie that focused entirely on her journey & inner-life could have played like an Insane Clown Posse-themed variation on Eighth Grade, which might have been even more fascinating than the low-key mainstream comedy we get here instead. Family gets by just fine distinguishing itself as is, however, establishing a peculiar, R-rated wholesomeness that’s just as darkly funny as it is oddly sweet. Schilling’s juggalo-skeptical audience surrogate is a perfect encapsulation of most people’s initial attitudes toward uncool, unfashionable subcultures on the wrong end of the poverty scale, and it’s just as satisfying to watch her learn to empathize with weirdos that far outside her comfort zone as it is relatable to watch her in full-cynic mode in the film’s opening act. It’s not as comprehensive of an argument for juggalo empathy as You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, but it’s just as funny & much more succinct.

-Brandon Ledet

Sunkist Family (2019)

On a recent 9-hour flight, I was browsing the in-flight movies that Delta Airlines had to offer. And yes, I did watch Delta’s controversial version of Booksmart in which the gay love scenes were cut (I wasn’t expecting them to be), but thankfully, Delta is working on incorporating the scenes into the films again after all the recent backlash. While browsing through the available movies, I came across the Korean family dramedy Sunkist Family, and it is one of the most heartwarming films to come out this year. To my surprise, this is the first film from female South Korean director Kim Ji-Hye, who served as both the film’s director and screenwriter. Her work is extremely impressive as she is able to keep this very sex positive movie quirky and sweet without ever coming close to being raunchy.

After about 20-something years of marriage, Joon Ho and Yoo Mi can’t keep their hands off each other.  They somehow manage to take care of their three children and run a small butcher shop while still making time to have sex anywhere and everywhere. The small suburban home that the couple share with their three children is a hilarious madhouse. Each kid has their own unique personality that really adds a lot of flavor to the family’s wacky dynamic. Chul Won is a sexually challenged teenage boy, Kyung Joo is an angsty teenage girl awaiting her first period, and Jin Hae is an extremely observant young girl. A good chunk of the film focuses on Jin Hae’s perspective of the family’s drama, and it is ever so charming and insightful.

Joon Ho and Yoo Mi’s perfect marriage takes a turn for the worst when Joon Ho’s first childhood love moves in next door. She pulls him back into his artistic roots while being a bit flirtatious, and Yoo Mi is not having it. Basically, one misunderstanding after another begins to tear the family apart, and little Jin Hae does her very best to bring them back together. Part of her plan includes spraying her entire family with what she thinks is “love spray,” but it’s actually some sort of penis spray intended to make men last longer in bed. This is perhaps my favorite moment in the film. The entire family is having a heated argument and Jin Hae comes to the rescue with the spray to help everyone love each other again. The whole spray scene is filmed in slow motion and looks so magical even though the reality of it is sort of disturbing.

Sunkist Family really focuses on how important communication is at all levels of a family. Husband to wife, parent to child, child to parent, etc. The miscommunication between the Sunkist Family almost destroys them, and this is something that most families can relate to. Whether it’s Jin Hae’s confusion on the world of sex or Joon Ho’s reluctance to tell his wife that he is visiting his lady neighbor instead of going to work, talking and being honest with one another is what is needed to keep this family together. This entire film is such a treat, and I’m looking forward to adding it to my ever-growing collection as I plan on watching again and again.

-Britnee Lombas

The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Shoplifters (2018)

In 2004, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda directed a heart-wrenching family drama about an apartment full of abandoned, impoverished children who spend countless months fending for themselves outside parental and governmental supervision. I have not seen enough of Kore-eda’s catalog to say whether Nobody Knows is a text that typifies his aesthetic or storytelling preoccupations as an auteur, but it’s a work that certainly echoes loudly in his latest film. Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes and nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture at the Oscars, Shoplifters is a much higher profile picture than Nobody Knowns. Yet it often plays like a slickly produced (read: better funded) revision of that earlier work. Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes. Either way, I can’t help but think of the two films as complimentary companions, which makes me suspect a wider knowledge of Kore-eda’s catalog at large could only improve my appreciation for either.

The most immediately noticeable difference between Nobody Knows & Shoplifters is that the latter film is vastly more expansive. This is literally true in terms of cast & setting, as almost all of Nobody Knows is suffocatingly confined to a single apartment populated by a small cast of ragged children, afraid of being found out by the outside world. Shoplifters, by contrast, features a makeshift-family of all ages who have to leave their own cramped living space to earn money & food to sustain the collective household through whatever meager means they can manage: shoplifting (duh), construction jobs, factory shifts, sex work, emotional grifts, etc. This opens the cast & locations to a much wider view of poverty-line Tokyo, and also necessitates a more tightly scripted storytelling approach (Nobody Knows feels as if it were patiently constructed out of meticulously edited children’s improv). Shoplifters’s expansion of the previous film’s tones & methods also extends to its camera work & emotional effect. No longer constrained to capturing spontaneous moments in a confined apartment, the camera is free to move in sweeping, energizing maneuvers that match the thrill of the characters’ high-risk/low-reward “shopping” trips. Those characters were also allowed to experience the full range of loving, familial emotions before the goings get toughest, rather than lowly rotting in steady decline.

In addition to Shoplifters’s slicker production aesthetic & expansive emotional palette, it’s a film that also finds Kore-eda willing to blatantly explain his themes in-dialogue. Throughout the film, characters in its makeshift family of near-homeless pariahs discuss in plain language that the familial bonds we choose are much stronger than the ones we’re born into. It’s not enough to demonstrate that community & solidary are the only saving graces for these victims of capitalism; they also have to reinforce the legitimacy of their chosen bonds by insistently using the terms “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” and “grandma” as if they were a traditional, blood-related family unit rather than a loose collection of societal castaways with no recourse but each other. As clearly stated & straightforward as the themes of unconventional chosen families can be, however, there’s still plenty of room for nuance & subtlety in individual characters’ personalities & histories. The world has been tough on these discarded souls, weighing them down with domestic abuse, economic exploitation, and pure deep-in-the-gut hunger. It’s a burden that’s made them understandably cutthroat & cynical, not the usual saintly saps you’d expect in this kind of drama. The familial bonds they form in crisis are heartfelt & sentimental, but the characters remain defensive, sardonic street toughs as individuals, which benefits the movie greatly as a character study and opens it to a more intricate, dense portrait of modern poverty than what the plainly-explained themes in the dialogue might suggest.

Its likely insulting to both Shoplifters & Nobody Knows as individual works that I cannot discuss their merits without comparing & contrasting them against each other. I still find the exercise unavoidable, as it clearly illustrates a growth in craft & sentiment from Kore-eda while also establishing a baseline for his political & emotional preoccupations as an auteur. Even though they’re not connected as sequels and the makeshift families they profile take remarkably different shapes, they still sit with me as sister films, bonding in unconventional ways. It’s a bond that strengthens each film as isolated works, as it puts both of their accomplishments in sharper relief, which only makes me want to see more films in the larger Kore-eda family.

-Brandon Ledet

Room (2015)

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There’s been a lot of recent buzz about the Incredible, Show-stealing, Oscar-worthy performance Brie Larson provides in the indie drama Room that is feel does the movie (and the actor) a disservice. I went into Room with sky-high expectations from early word of its soaring virtues, so I was a little let down when I discovered it’s actually a somewhat muted small cast drama, grim in nature, but rarely brutal or affecting enough to leave a significant, lingering impression. Room is a pretty great film, for sure, but its early reputation bills it as so Big & Important that it was more or less doomed to fall short of the mark no matter what. I enjoyed Brie Larson’s wounded-animal performance in the film a great deal, but I find myself a little dubious about the idea that she stole the show. In my mind Room‘s most valuable player is not Larson at all, but instead a young boy named Jacob Tremblay.

In the film, Larson plays a young mother who’s been held captive as a sex slave in a ten-by-ten foot garden shed in a suburban backyard for seven years & counting. Her five year old son, Jack, has never known life outside their single-room home. The movie commands a very direct mode of storytelling that avoids flashbacks or easy answers, gradually filling in the audience on the circumstances of the pair’s captivity without providing much release from the understandably oppressive tone. As you can guess based on the premise, the mother & son protagonists experience levels of boredom & frustration that lead to destructive tantrums far beyond what would typically be described as cabin fever. I will say, though, that although it isn’t quite as light-hearted as narratively similar recent examples of false imprisonment media like Everly or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance.

Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured. For him, Room is all there is, excepting “outer space” (the outdoors), “the TV planets” (which he believes aren’t real), and Heaven. Jack’s mother is often frustrated with his delusions, like when he asks, “Do we go into TV for dreaming?” but she also uses them to protect her son from the harshness of their severely limited reality. There’s a monumental dramatic shift halfway into Room that undercuts what makes the film special (something I suggest you avoid spoiling for yourself by watching the trailer), but much of the film can be downright uplifting whenever the story is told through Jack’s eyes. Of course, his perspective can also be a downer at times, like the pathetic way he addresses inanimate objects as if they were people (“Good morning, lamp.” “Good morning, TV.” “Good morning, sink.”), but because he’s a five year old boy he also brings levity to the situation with self-satisfying humor about things like poo & farts.

As I said earlier, Room is a pretty great movie. It occasionally reaches some impressive cinematic heights in moments of heart-pounding suspense or in the odd way it makes you appreciate abstract concepts like freedom & external spaces. However, I do feel that a lot of what makes the film special burns out a bit too early in its runtime, especially when it shifts perspectives from Jack’s to his mother’s. Brie Larson was undoubtedly understated & nuanced in her role as a captive mother here, which is admirable, but her character’s emotional crisis often felt like a distraction from what really makes the movie a distinct work in the first place: Jack. Try to temper your own trumped up anticipation for the film & you might find yourself bowled over in a way that I ruined for myself, especially if you can manage to shift your attention from Brie Larson’s lauded performance to that of Jacob Tremblay. That’s where the real magic resides.

-Brandon Ledet