Young Critics review: Kajilionaire
There is no Miranda July to be seen in Kajillionaire and yet she’s still all over it. “What kind of person spends years killing herself over every little detail of what can never be more than an hour and 46 minutes of someone’s day,” July asks her followers on Instagram. Being a self-proclaimed perfectionist, July writes characters that typically only function within arbitrary, but highly specific frameworks—they seem to move in small bubbles within our world, guided by their own set of rules, which makes it hard to make sense of their motives. Some find July’s work irritatingly naive and self-absorbed, but behind the opacity of her idiosyncratic mannerisms lies a revolutionary re-evaluation of our own incessant need to perform. You might vitriolically call her the queen of quirky, yet July’s queerness still is a reflection of its surroundings.
'Quirky’ shouldn’t be mistaken for 'sincere’. A filmmaker like Wes Anderson is far too often called an auteur working within the 'new sincerity’ movement; his work is based off of the understanding that whatever is truly genuine should also be necessarily otherworldly. Andersons’ movies create finite universes of secluded hotels, trains, islands, and fox holes that go on monologuing about themselves, without any sense of reflexive critical judgement. They’re still good fun, but he hollows out the concept of sincerity, leaving it at an alienating performance of quirky sincerity; July, however, amplifies this, challenging the quirky by placing it firmly at the core of our society, not isolated as a closed-off performative world.
July presents us the Dynes—the elderly couple Robert and Theresa (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood)—who embody versions of her own self-serious, comic persona. They wear the same set of clothes day in day out; they live in a dilapidated office that vomits foam along the walls at specific times; they have long, witchy hair. We get hints of a past life through conversation—“I am of gentle birth,” Robert says to Old Dolio, “you wouldn’t understand”—and learn that the Dynes once took the decision to turn their back on society’s rules and demands. But what should have been an escapist project by stubborn idealists, now seems a strenuous job, burdened by precarity. A strange name like “Old Dolio” is no longer a token to signal alternative parenting—hello to all the Peaches and Dewdrops in this world—but an attempt to convince a pauper-turned-millionaire to donate part of his fortune to his namesake. The Dynes’ life looks like a game, but they play to survive.
And they need money to do so. Unlike the Southern California’s consumerist culture they are surrounded by, the Dynes don’t desire money to show off social status; they aren’t interested in social progress through the acquiring of goods. Money only allows them to proceed to the next step in their game of life. The streets are turned into a playground where they perform routines that echo the stylized burglaries from Mission Impossible and Ocean’s 11 but are nowhere near as professional. These routines are insights in their attitude towards the world—the Dynes activate a whole new world within our uninteresting everyday. Part of that game is to find money everywhere, at all time, only by looking hard enough; and when in doubt, there’s always a way to negotiate. July gamifies the underprivileged experience, but doesn’t only indulge in the aesthetics of play; she questions our understanding of money, pointing at its arbitrariness. If a free voucher for a massage can’t be cashed, it certainly must be possible to trade it for an expensive-looking rock in the corner? While the Dynes only reiterate society’s widely accepted monetization of touch and intimacy, July turns their quest for money into a strategy to dismantle the hypocrisy of this currency. When Old Dolio finally agrees to use as little as twenty minutes of the voucher, the masseuse is hardly able touch her. As Old Dolio repeatedly cries out in pain, the masseuse ends up hovering her hands above Dolio’s shoulders, which, surprisingly, calms her down. What gives Old Dolio pleasure isn’t the actual physical contact, but rather the demonetized idea of touch. A strange sight; quirky, but not gratuitously so.
Furthermore, the imagery of the air-massage explains in some way the Dynes’ rejection of goods as emotional objects, too. When they first meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a young, seemingly superficial brat, they simply can’t understand this woman’s attachment to her phone. For them, objects are either practical tools or things to trade in for money. For Melanie, objects allow her to self-identify: they are bodily extensions, “like a third arm,” as she explains, or, through the duplicate gifts of her digitally overly present mother, representations of family relationships and affirmations of those social connections. Although Melanie seems to operate according to normalized social conduct, the Dynes bring out her—and our own—quirkiness: frantically touching her head in the belief that she lost her headphones, even though they’re still safely around her neck, the subsequent relieved laughter and her rapid, non-sense speech are rendered the same absurdity as the family we have now come to accept. Melanie’s introduction makes us aware of our biased notion of normality: shifting from the Dynes to Melanie, we look at her with new eyes, discovering queer sensibilities in consumerist performances. July makes clear that we are all authentic and sincere—whether we act according to personal idealist beliefs or structural ideologies—because we are uniquely our own. The moment in which Melanie falls in love with Old Dolio sums it up: as Old Dolio begins to peel off Melanie’s fake nails, July focuses on the miniature movement of the nail detaching from the glue in an extreme close-up representing Melanie’s point-of-view. Absurd, quirky, but we hold our breaths with Melanie nonetheless.
Gradually, both Melanie and Old Dolio close the gap between their experiences with capital, growing towards a shared point of reference. As Old Dolio confronts her parents with their emotional neglect, offering them money in exchange for wasted experiences of intimacy—pet names, belly crawling, dancing—Melanie accepts the check instead, to offer these lost gestures of parental love and care. Melanie, in turn, loses all accumulated material capital, but is left with a relationship that is not suffocated by consumerism or emotional exchange value: Old Dolio, just like Melanie freed from her parents’ capitalist game play and performative duties as a child. As Melanie and Old Dolio return the long overdue birthday presents given by the Dynes, the final amount adds up to exactly 525 dollars—her part of a check that was meant to be shared between the three Dynes in the first place. With this, July implies that Melanie and Old Dolio start off anew, beginning again, independently from their parents, but together. Shedding off all the previous weight imposed by family and capital, their kiss is an affirmation of a newly gained sincerity in life.