'Kajillionaire' Review: Miranda July's Con Artist Movie Is Strange But Ultimately Sweet [Sundance 2020]

If Parasite didn't satiate your hunger for family teams of con artists, you might be curious to check out Kajillionaire, the latest work from Miranda July. But while Parasite is a tale of capitalism and class-warfare, Kajillionaire has other things on its mind. In fact, it's not really even a con artist movie. July uses that scenario to draw us into the surreal world she's created, and then pulls the rug out from under us to create something far more emotional.

The problem with this scenario: this switcheroo ends up resulting in a lopsided movie. The first hour of Kajillionaire borders on bad, with a series of quirky, oddball set-ups that seem designed to elicit a curious chuckle and nothing more. July introduces us to a family of grifters: Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). They live off the grid, and get by ripping off the post office, returning stolen merchandise, and trying to swindle anyone and everyone they can. The family inhabits a decrepit office set up next to a factory that causes soapy bubbles to come pouring through their walls like The Blob.

While they're technically related, they're not exactly what you'd call a family. There's no warmth between these individuals, and more often than not, it seems like Old Dolio's parents don't really care for her. She has a bit of a wake-up call when she attends a parenting seminar to make a quick buck, and watches a video about how babies bond with their mothers. It dawns on her that she's never had any real affection for, or from, her mom.

Wood is great in the part, adopting a husky monotone voice and using her body language to be both nimble and rigid. She's a complete misfit, unable to comfortably interact with anyone outside of her parents – and she even has trouble interacting with them. Her insecurities only intensify when the family takes on a new member of the team: Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a bubbly, chatty, easy-going loner who seems perfectly happy to get in on the action. Old Dolio watches as her parents treat Melanie with more respect, and kindness, than they've ever treated her. But her disdain for Melanie is further complicated by the fact that she finds herself attracted to this new addition to her life, and Melanie appears to feel the same way.

It's when Melanie enters the picture that Kajillionaire finally begins to steady itself and turn into something completely different than the con movie it started out as. The cons and schemes and scams start to fade in the background as Old Dolio comes to terms with the complicated relationship with her parents, and her feelings for Melanie. It's ultimately a story about family – and its many interpretations. About how we, as individuals, are shaped by those who raise us. And about how everyone thinks they're doing the best that they can, even when it's painfully obvious they aren't.

A sweetness trickles into the film here, elevating the cartoonish oafishness that's so prevalent in the early scenes. July manages to elicit a remarkable amount of empathy for, and from, her characters. Even Old Dolio's parents – who are not exactly what you'd call "good people" – are granted a semblance of dignity and understanding.

July covers this all with her distinct eye for the surreal. While Kajillionaire is set in the real world, no one here – not even Melanie – behaves like an ordinary person. This approach could've backfired and resulted in a film populated with caricatures, but July – and her performers – find humanity lurking within their quirky oddballs. There's also plenty of humor to be had, mostly from Wood's deadpan delivery.

Kajillionaire is a curiosity that's even more abstract than July's previous films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, and as a result, may turn off some viewers. It almost did so for me, and I tend to enjoy this type of film. But if you stick with the scheme July has mapped out here, you'll find the filmmaker has been conning you from the start and setting you up for something far more rewarding./Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10