Miranda July Extends Her Reign as Queen of Quirk with ‘Kajillionaire’

Few filmmakers take us further from stale storytelling while somehow remaining relatable.
By  · Published on January 30th, 2020

Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) is a 26-year-old boyish girl with hip-length straw hair who shows — and apparently feels — no emotion, looks like she was incubated in a Wayne’s World fantasy, and lives with her equally detached parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) in an abandoned office suite that oozes bubbly pink foam once a day and butts up against an operating factory. She wears a zipped-up olive-green tracksuit top with two thick bands of black and khaki color above the elbows and an unmatching navy blue pair of tracksuit pants. A greyish brown tee pokes out from underneath the zip-up. Everything is five sizes too big and looks like it was found in a dumpster. And maybe it was. Nothing is off the table for a quirky Miranda July character, especially in the case of her third feature, Kajillionaire, which reaches new heights in the realm of the absurd.

July has made quite the name for herself as a multimedia storyteller over the past 25 years. In short, she’s an absolute enigma, which is invaluable in a film industry that grows increasingly indebted to market research. Whether in film, fiction, music, sculpture, spoken word, performance art, or app building, she creates the previously uncreated and imagines the unimaginable. Ask yourself: does Old Dolio remind you of anyone? Is there any character in a book, a film, or human history that comes close to the characterization of Old Dolio? Hell, is anyone else on the planet even named Old Dolio? Or anyone in the history of fiction for that matter?

If you search the name, all that Google gives back are pages of Sundance Kajillionaire coverage in varied languages with the occasional innominate 19th-century Italian document wedged into the results. I guess the name Dolio was more popular then and there, but legally named Old Dolios were still nowhere to be found. And if one were tucked into some corner of history, they certainly don’t share the same etymology as July’s Old Dolio, whose parents named her after a lonely homeless man who won the lottery in hopes that he would take notice and write their newborn child into his will. Instead, he spent it all of it on cancer research that couldn’t save him and Old Dolio was named in vein, a pitch perfect example of the singularity of July’s creations.

Her previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, are peculiar yet confident in their eccentricity. The former is a mosaic of mundanity made up of a divorced department store shoe salesman with two kids mesmerized by the potential of early aughts internet chat rooms, a failing awkward avant-garde artist played by July herself, and a couple of curious teen girls that experience their first adult predator through concupiscent messages in a window near a bus stop.

The latter is an existential expression of the passage of time packaged in an offbeat look-a-like couple who decide to drop everything and reorient their lives one month before picking up their new cat. Both make what-the-fuck decisions with their newfound freedom. The man practically sells himself into door-to-door environmentalist activism before exercising an unknown ability to pause time, and the woman (July again) sparks up a hidden relationship with a much older suburban man who she finds through the phone number on the back of a child’s drawing that hangs on the wall.

In the case of Kajillionaire, July hits new extremes, as evidenced by the characterization of Old Dolio. But what you know about Old Dolio and company so far is only the beginning. When she wants to listen to music, she calls a customer service line that she knows will leave her on hold. The only reason her outfit could have reasonably been found in a dumpster is that she has lived her entire life as a thief and a grifter. At best, she’s more like an urban industrial brand of gleaner. But it’s not her fault. She was raised this way by her all swindle, no play parents, whose unhinged existence is wrapped up in the comical anxiety of the next elaborate scheme for measly payoff.

They don’t say “I love you,” call their daughter sweet names, or show any kind of affection, which leaves Old Dolio terrified of touch (even touch as universally welcomed as a massage). Their collective emotionlessness is hilariously contrasted by their factory-manager landlord who has a condition because of which he cannot not express his emotions in the most dramatic sense. He weeps when the Dynes try to avoid him because they can’t pay their rent and trembles with uncertainty when they make promises he knows they won’t come through with.

The list of character oddities goes on for miles without ever breaching the plotline, which I’ll leave untouched, but it’s these details that make July’s work so fresh, fascinating, and significant (or infuriating for those not as keen on the oft-irritating passivity, inscrutability, and meta-narrativity that undergirds her screenwriting) while remaining oddly accessible. Kajillionaire is July’s greatest triumph in that light. It’s the first film July has written and directed without starring in, which leads one to wonder if the choice to stay behind the camera gave her more room to spread her wings, and if, as a result, this is her purest expression of self.

Whether it is or not, Kajillionaire cements July as the maestro of anomalous characterization and filmic fabulism, as if she didn’t hold the title already. And what she chooses to do with Old Dolio, outside of utilizing her name as a joke countless times with exponential success, is remarkable. In true Miranda July fashion, it must be seen to be believed.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.