Writer and Director: Miranda July

The hustler movie has been undergoing some changes in recent years, broadening its perspective to include female protagonists and even the wider consequences of their crimes. Miranda July’s latest comedy Kajillionaire showing as part of the London Film Festival adds a family dynamic as the Dynes attempt a series of small-scale frauds.

Theresa, John and their adult daughter Old Dolio subsist on petty larcenies such as intercepting mail, acting as proxy for others and forging cheques while living in a rundown LA office block. When they can’t make rent, the family plan to generate the $1500 they need with a travel insurance fraud, meeting Melanie on the way. Soon Old Dolio realises her dissatisfaction and, as she tries to break away, a battle of the hustlers begins.

Its off-kilter tone and heightened oddness will make July’s film an acquired taste, and while it sits in the small Laugh section of the BFI Festival – appropriately for 2020 only three Laughs this year – Kajillionaire has no overt side-splitting humour. Instead, it revels in its whimsical peculiarities as an oddball family collide with a relatively ordinary, but arguably no less grasping, young woman who temporarily joins the gang.

Some of the more extreme scenarios may perplex more than they amuse including a sequence in which Melanie takes the Dynes to the house of a bedbound client where, at his behest, they roleplay ordinary family life in other room discussing their day and contemplating mowing the lawn while the homeowner waits to die in the next room. The purpose; to locate and steal his chequebook.

Similar quirky scenarios comprise the remainder of the film when Melanie and Old Dolio leave only to find themselves trapped in a dark room beside a garage as an earthquake strikes. Convinced they have died, and with a screen filled first with blackout and then stars, Old Dolio tries to assure Melanie that nothing she still feels is now real.

But depth is added through the developing relationship between these two young women and, although hinted in earlier sections, the encounter with Melanie helps Old Dolio to realise how little genuine affection she has ever received. Watching trust develop between them is well achieved while July quite brutally exposes the business relationship that has coloured Theresa and John’s view of parenthood.

Evan Rachel Wood develops the character of Old Dolio from a near speechless presence disguising her individuality with long hair and shapeless tracksuit jackets, to a woman able to take control of her own life. There is a growing empathy for the loveless girl whose socialisation begins when she emerges from the shadow of her parents and builds a connection with Gina Rodriguez’s Melanie.

Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger as John and Theresa are equally hapless in their way, always looking for the next small opportunity that never quite works. But as Kajillionaire unfolds the audience understands how calculating they are, ultimately prepared to cross any number of lines to make a fast buck.

At 104-minutes, Kajillionaire is certainly overlong, focusing on examples of criminal activity in the early part of the film before getting to its central point about the failure of family to provide genuine care, while the Dynes hand-to-mouth existence never feels genuinely risky. Yet, July uses the characteristics of the hustler movie to think about who can really be trusted, introducing a family dynamic that takes the genre in a new and unexpected direction.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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