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There’s a lot to like in Kajillionaire, apart from the film itself, since what it boils down to is a story of child abuse told in a tone so wilfully whimsical that it’s hoping to sell itself as a comedy.

The abused party is Old Dolio, a bizarre name for a child, daughter of a pair of grifters whose bar is set so low that their regular gig is to steal mail from the post office and just chance to luck that there’s something in there.

The parents don’t see themselves as bottom feeders, more as revolutionaries who have rejected the blandishments of modern capitalism – where everyone wants to be a “kajillionaire” – liberators clinging to some distorted remnant of hippie idealism, maybe.

The regular routine of zealous Robert (Richard Jenkins), cheerleading wife Theresa (Debra Winger) and withdrawn monotone daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is hit by a disruption event in the shape of mile-a-minute showy Puerto Rican Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) whom they meet on a plane as they’re off to pull one of their more spectacular scams – the “lost luggage” con (insurance will pay out up to $1,500) – to cover the rent on their dwelling (an office space regularly invaded by cascades of pink foam leaking from the next-door factory). For reasons that appear to owe everything to plot necessity rather than psychological plausibility, Melanie has soon become a part of their setup.

From here to the finish line it’s a case of immovable object meeting irresisitible force, Melanie disturbing the family’s routine and the relationship between the parents and the child. Old Dolio is actually 26 but dresses like she’s 15 and yearns for pretty things and even the slightest sign of affection from her parents, who view untrammelled emotion as one of the features of the “kajillionaire” mindset.

Melanie – all teeth and rack (her tits almost become a subplot) – is those desires incarnate.

Melanie and Old Dolio go shopping
Learning to shop: Melanie and Old Dolio

Why is the daughter called Old Dolio? The answer comes towards the end and is a brilliant summation of everything that’s wrong with the parent/child relationship. And I’m not going to ruin it, because though the film is ghastly in some respects, it exerts a certain grip, thanks in large part to Old Dolio’s quest for tenderness, a whisper that grows to a roar.

To hook in a demographic who don’t go for writer/director Miranda July’s whimsy, there’s actors Jenkins, Winger and Wood. All are reliably excellent at the worst of times but all are at their best here – Jenkins the elated loser who secretly knows the game is up, Winger the shuffling wife going along with the grifting because there’s no alternative, but Wood in particular, putting on a display of lunatic physicality that atones for her turn as po-faced robot Dolores in the interminable Westworld.

Gina Rodriguez I’ve not seen before but holds her own against this formidable trio with a performance that makes it almost plausible that Melanie would be hanging out with these three weirdos – loud enough to be taken seriously as a “force”, quiet enough that her motivation doesn’t become apparent, until it suddenly is. Ahaa!

But at bottom it’s a child abuse story. The parents have held this girl in their thrall and made her life a misery since she was born. Layering that with oddball characters, bizarre locations and comic situations might be enough to stop the misery bleeding through for some, but it’s not going to work for everyone. Beneath the pink foam, it’s grim.

Kajillionaire – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2020

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