There are familiar signs to indicate we’re travelling through Miranda July territory during the opening sequence of Kajillionaire. The sunshine is so Southern California-bright it paralyzes the characters’ common sense. Three people standing at a Ghost World-like bus stop, surrounded by strip malls, are reviewing the details of an absurd plan. The females in the group have the same 1970s Joni Mitchell, parted in the middle, hip-length hairdo. Their companion is an older man who’s disheveled and just this side of sane. Together, they converge upon a nondescript post office.
July shoots the opening scene as if it were a satirical take on the Mission Impossible movies. The stakes here are lower, but just as serious. Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) — the character’s name was literally dreamed up by a friend of July’s — the youngest cohort in the group, contorts her body like an acrobat to avoid the post office surveillance cameras. Egged on by her conspirators, she grabs what she can from strangers’ P.O. boxes.
We soon learn that this would-be band of guerrillas is, in fact, a family of grifters — dropped out of society and scraping by on half-baked scams.
After starring in her first two movies — Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011) — July remained behind the camera to direct her third film. In a telephone interview, July told SF Weekly that she came up with the idea for Kajillionaire quickly. Two days into writing she realized, “Oh, there’s no woman my age. There’s no part for me.” But she loved the idea too much to not follow through with it.
Anonymous American settings are distinctive characteristics in July’s cinematic world. Bland interior designs in offices and apartment complexes return in each of her films. You’d never mistake her work for a Nancy Meyers’ film, where the fabricated kitchens look like they cost as much as July’s entire budget. “Mostly that’s where people live,” July explains. “If I’m going to draw from the life around me, these are where the people are busy making their way through their life.”
As nice as it is to shoot a gorgeous vista or a beautiful architectural backdrop, these exteriors wouldn’t match the interior lives of her characters. “It would mess that up if I pretended that there was great comfort out there in the places where people were,” the director explains. July believes that these settings are useful for character development. “I want them coming to exist, so that we can watch that happen,” she says. “And it should happen in an ordinary place, or a place that’s working against them heavily.”
Nothing seems to be working for Old Dolio and her parents, Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins). They “live” or, rather, sleep in an abandoned office next to a liquid soap factory. Every afternoon as the soap is being made or bottled, a tide of pink bubbles spills through the back wall of the office. In one of their many unspoken family rituals, July lines them up, the way a choreographer arranges her dancers, so they can gather the rising tide of foam.
When we meet them, they’re three months behind on the $500 rent. Life and its attendant demands are overwhelming their marginal existence. To avoid their landlord, the actors bend their bodies to hide beneath a fence. Again, July directs them to move like dancers pulled mid-performance from a Martha Graham ballet. “Someone pointed out to me that I also have the characters ducking down under the window in Me and You and Everyone We Know,” she says. “There’s something to me about being just out of sight, but still so close, and so obviously there, from the right perspective. It’s like a child’s idea of disappearing.”
Old Dolio is an innocent creature, socialized only by her parents. She’s at least one universe away from the omnipotent being Wood plays on the HBO TV series Westworld. In this role, the timbre of Wood’s voice is deeper. But July didn’t ask her to change it. Wood demonstrated in rehearsals that she could choose between two registers, which was a shock to the director. “But I could see that when she used the lower voice, she would also drop into Old Dolio, and so it seemed like a no-brainer,” she says.
“I do actually think that voices, like hair, are things that are up for grabs. Really the whole body, but you can change them to be more your truth, your true self,” July adds. Kajillionaire is a twist on the usual coming-of-age story, in which an extremely isolated soul starts the process of finding her true self. When the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) in a chance encounter, Old Dolio begins to find, as July puts it, “her people.”
Although the director doesn’t make the process easy for Old Dolio. She’s longing for intimacy and affection, “but it’s repulsive when she finds it in Melanie’s apartment,” July explains. Her instinct is to retreat back to the dysfunctional life she shared with her parents and their sudsing living room. She’d rather be somewhere familiar than be OK. July says, “That was important to me, too, to not pretend that it’s always easy to find an anchor.” And that, even when you do find someone, “No one can fix everything.”
Kajillionaire opens at the Fairfax Theater on September 25.