Kajillionaire Searches for Love in a Transactional World

Hello, everyone!

A few weeks ago I watched a movie that profoundly impacted me. That movie was Kajillionaire, a drama directed by Miranda July. Released in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, this underrated gem depicts a few days in the life of a love-starved woman and her con artist parents when their latest grift is interrupted by the arrival of a charismatic newcomer. Billed as a crime drama and comedy, Kajillionaire is a surprisingly poignant film about love and loneliness centering on one woman’s search to discover her true worth.

Synopsis: Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) live on the margins of society in Los Angeles, gleaning a skimpy living from petty theft and low-stakes grifting. When Old Dolio comes up with a plan to defraud their travel insurance, the family get on a plane and meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a charismatic young woman who agrees to help them with their grift. Once they arrive back in Los Angeles, Melanie provides them with new scamming opportunities, earning praise from Old Dolio’s parents. Jealous of Melanie’s easy entrance into the family, Old Dolio tries to win back her parents’ love, and learns that there might be more for her in life than chasing the next grift.

My thoughts: Kajillionaire is a movie with a hard entry and a soft landing. From the first scene, the viewer is thrust into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable world. Old Dolio and her parents are strange characters who view the world through a skewed lens. Her parents worship the grift, having even named their daughter after a dying homeless man in the hopes that he would leave them some money in his will. They fear the government, cell phones, security cameras, and especially earthquake tremors, believing that the tremors are leading to an apocalyptic event called the “Big One.”

Residing in an abandoned office next to a leaking soap factory, the trio spend their days stealing mail in the hopes of finding checks and completing odd jobs for anyone who comes their way. One of these odd jobs sees Old Dolio attending a mandatory birth class for expecting mothers, where she becomes entranced by a video of a newborn completing a “breast crawl.” At home, Old Dolio is treated more like an accomplice than a daughter, and her need for affection radiates from her like light from the sun.

As a viewer, I initially found it difficult to empathize with Old Dolio. From her oversized and androgynous clothing, to her monotone masculine voice, Old Dolio convincingly passes as an asocial loner intent on following in her parent’s grifting footsteps. But the moment that Melanie arrives onscreen, everything changes for Old Dolio. Melanie’s vivacity and inner security immediately throw Old Dolio into a tailspin. As she watches her parents embrace Melanie in a way they’ve never embraced her, Old Dolio sees her place in the world crumbling beneath her feet.

Melanie and Old Dolio

One of the most affecting scenes in the movie sees the group attempting to rob an old man’s home while he dies. Telling Old Dolio that his kids love him, but are too busy to visit, he asks the group to rattle silverware, turn on the TV, and talk about school as if they were his family. Old Dolio, who has never experienced this type of normality, tells the old man that “life is nothing” and that he should “just let it go without really thinking about it, like letting go of a piece of string.”

But even with her outwardly bitter tone, the old man’s lonely end causes Old Dolio to reconsider her meaningless life and her parents’ heartlessness. She is stricken by how easily her parents can pretend to keep house with Melanie, while withholding affection from their own daughter. With the old man’s death weighing on her conscience, and her parents’ easy affection towards Melanie piercing her heart, Old Dolio is at her breaking point. When she receives the $1500 insurance check in the mail, Old Dolio offers it to her mother in return for calling her “hon” in the same tone she used for Melanie. When her mother refuses, Old Dolio is forced to confront the reality that her parents’ are incapable of giving her the love she needs.

It’s this pivotal scene that sees the movie turning away from a bizarre crime drama into a coming-of-age love story. Stuck with Melanie, Old Dolio begins to realize that the paranoid and transactional world her parents have constructed for her is a false one. Small acts of kindness, like homemade pancakes, throw her off balance. Melanie, offering Old Dolio a type of love she has never seen before, challenges Old Dolio to re-examine the foundations of her world: parents who would sell her out for a check in the mail, a life spent scrabbling on the margins, and relationships built on transactions instead of love.

The grifting trio

In the movie’s climax, Old Dolio and Melanie hide in a pitch-black gas station bathroom while a particularly heavy tremor strikes Los Angeles. Convinced that the Big One has come and that she has died, Old Dolio has a bitter epiphany about her wasted life.

This is how it’s going to be, forever. The blackness. You can’t believe it because you were married to life. Hooked on it. I wasn’t hooked so it’s not such a big deal to me. I don’t have any regrets. You’re gonna have regrets though, because you’re gonna miss sex and dancing and pancakes. I just had that one pancake. So I’m not gonna be sad.

Kajillionaire (2020)

Old Dolio’s overt rejection of all the things that make life special, things she has been denied her whole life, show how deeply she yearns to have a normal and fulfilling life. Even though she once described dying like letting go of a string, she now finds herself angrily mourning what could have been. When the tremor ends, Melanie leads them out of the gas station bathroom, and Old Dolio realizes that she is still alive, the last remnants of her old life slip away. She is reborn in the painfully bright gas station parking lot and can take the first step towards confronting her parents for their neglect. On its face, the scene is bizarre: a revelation in a gas station bathroom? But Old Dolio’s spiritual rebirth ties the whole movie together with the message that a lonely life spent chasing pennies isn’t one worth living, and that the silly little things that she’s lived her whole life without are the things that she has been desperately yearning for. It’s a message that some critics might consider “precious” for its sincerity, but it’s a message that resonated with me. It is heartwarming to see a film that valorizes life’s more mundane qualities, like pancakes and dancing, as highly as if they were plated in gold.

Kajillionaire is a heartwarming movie, but it’s also a challenging one. It asks viewers to look past the more objectionable facets of these characters’ lives to their beating hearts, and to empathize with characters who behave in unorthodox ways. It challenges us to consider whether children owe their parents unconditional love, and it encourages viewers to extends kindness in unexpected directions. On the surface, Kajillionaire may be about the search for the ultimate payoff, but at its core, the movie is about the hunt for something truly priceless: a place in this world.

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