Know Your Worth
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, a haven for oddballs and outcasts, we follow the Dyne family, an eccentric group of low-stakes con artists. Robert [Jenkins] and Theresa [Winger] have raised their only daughter to reject the trappings of society, while gaming the system for whatever they can get. But their successes are limited and even the daughter’s name, Old Dolio, is the remnants of a long-con that never paid off. This strange harmony is disrupted when Old Dolio comes up with a simple con that could land them $1575 but subsequently ends up recruiting the bubbly and extroverted Melanie [Rodriguez].
On the surface, Kajillionaire is a simple character portrait of irregularity but at its heart it presents a genuine love story and the various forms that love takes. In that way, this is very much Old Dolio’s story through-and-through; backstories are not important – though often offered – and the events beyond the here and now are problems for another day. But rather than simply offering a peak behind the circus tent curtain at the oddities, it’s a fairly blunt commentary on the nature of dysfunctional families, without ever getting too serious. On the one hand you have Dolio who has been taught how to write by forging signatures and forms, stifled by her parent’s obscurities and way of life. On the other we have Melanie’s mother, a figure never seen, only heard on the phone and although clearly invested in her daughter’s life, does so at arm’s length, sending her things without any form of genuine attention or affection. It’s a fairly simple juxtapositon but one that illustrates our parent’s eccentricities, no matter how small could be construed as neglect or even tantamount to abuse from a certain perspective. And considering Old Dolio is 26 and still living with and operating as a clone of her parents, it serves as a poignant and well-timed story for a generation of 30 somethings still living at home, unable to find the means to support themselves. But for better or worse, the film doesn’t want to get too bogged down in this and keeps a surprisingly optimistic tone, assuring the audience that everything will be alright.
Most of this air of positivity doesn’t emanate from the performances but everything around them. The direction and cinematography are very grounded and unconcerned with anything too elaborate, allowing the performers to simply operate in a boxed out space without real interruption. The visuals from the run-down, unassuming interiors to the idiosyncratic functional costumes all give an air of peculiarity, one of distance that almost states these people are not necessarily part of our society but adjacent to it, blending in like undercover alien observers with their set routines. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the mechanical silent precision of clearing the foamy bubbles leaking through the walls of the office they are using as residence. This is of course heightened by Emile Mosseri’s score which is a solid mix of quirkiness and soulfulness; like Vangelis by way of Matteo Messina.
As stated, this is very much a character study and subsequently not a great deal actually happens in the narrative, just more and more layers of an awakening in Old Dolio that is initially sparked by having to take a mandatory parenting class which causes her to start questioning her familial arrangement. But the film really kicks into high gear with the introduction of Melanie. No sooner are we familiar with the madcap customs of the Dynes, everything is turned on its head by adding this loquacious and zealous young woman. Melanie’s energy lifts the film perfectly at the end of the first act, offering a stark contrast between the kind of life that Old Dolio could have had; where Old Dolio is awkward, Melanie is charming, Old Dolio is reticent, Melanie is outgoing. And this is firmly cemented by the wonderful chemistry between Woods and Rodrigeuz who are just utterly fantastic together.
But while these two are understandably bewitching, so much of the groundwork is laid by Jenkins and Winger as Old Dolio’s parents. Everything we learn about this world and how these characters operate within it is down to their experiences. But the audience can never know what to trust with them. One scene offers an insight into their origin but we can never guarantee if there’s any truth to it or whether this is simply another layer to the con. In that way, we experience them in the same way a child would; they are simply your parents, any life they had before you is one shrouded in a fog of mystery and all you can do is judge them based on their actions and the way they treat you.
Kajillionaire’s “weirdness” will undoubtedly alienate many but that’s essentially part of its charm and appeal. Ranging from beautifully warm to awkward and uncomfortable, it’s doing what all independent cinema does, it’s offering you a different perspective and in that capacity, it’s a great success.
09 October 2020
The Scene To Look Out For:
I mentioned that there aren’t a great deal of extravagant shots but there is a particularly wonderful subtle intensity when Old Dolio removes Melanie’s nails. To explain, Melanie’s involvement in the first con leaves her feeling a little cold and Robert’s brash comments are the last straw but before she can leave Old Dolio reaches out, breaking one of her nails. Melanie protests but Old Dolio begins removing them with precision and expertise. While it should simply serve to illustrate that she has been skimming what we would consider trash for years, it’s used to highlight a tenderness. Everything is flooded with such overt romantic notes and filters that it’s almost cliche but the purity of the scene sells it perfectly.
Evan Rachel Wood immerses herself in this crushing mix of naïveté and savvy displaying so much complexity in her character. After learning about how babies crawl across their mother’s chest to find the breast, she becomes fascinated with how a baby can instinctively know these things without being taught. This journey of physicality, the realisation that her parent’s lack of affection has shaped how she interacts with those around her, is marvellous. In one of the first scenes, Old Dolio’s fear of contact while reluctantly accepting a massage from a mark brings her to tears then later when she is at the Positive Parenting class, she slowly edges closer by allowing the group leader to mime brushing her hair. It’s a magnificent portrayal from a blisteringly talented individual.
“If I’m honest my favourite movies are the Oceans 11 movies and I’m pretty psyched about being involved in an actual heist”
In A Few Words:
“A delightfully quirky and heartfelt look at connection and the people our parents shape us to be”