Kajillionaire opens with a family of con artists stealing mail from an L.A. post office. As Robert and Theresa Dyne (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) keep a lookout, their daughter, Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood) contorts herself into a spasmic dance sequence to avoid security cameras at the entrance before slinking into the building and sticking her hand through an open P.O. box, grabbing whatever envelopes she can reach before hightailing back outside. Think Ocean’s 11 meets Shoplifters, with a dash of Charlie Chaplin.
Woods’ performance is so raw, so real, that I found myself googling Old Dolio Dyne for over an hour during and after the film, absolutely convinced that she must be a real person that July had based her film on.
“The name sounds familiar right?” writer and director Miranda July told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of Kajillionaire’s September 25 theatrical release.
But Old Dolio Dyne, like her parents, is a work of fiction. That she feels so tangible is a testament to July’s vision, and Wood’s execution.
The film follows Old Dolio — named for a homeless lottery winner her parents thought might write her into his will (he didn’t) — and her family as they live their lives on the margins of society, hustling to profit from its loopholes. The unbridled acquisition of money and material goods is for suckers — the Dynes only con enough to survive. Still, they’re not all that great at it, which leads to the pressing problem of making enough to pay the rent. Their home, it must be noted, is a former office complex, the walls of which leak gigantic pink soap bubbles from the factory next door at the same time every day. It’s in the pursuit of that cash that the family meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an outsider who jolts Old Dolio into an identity crisis that threatens to upend the family dynamic that has sustained her for so long.
Though Old Dolio isn’t a real person, July says she was the first character to appear to her when she was conceiving of the film’s narrative.
“I knew right away that she had long hair. Whether or not she knows it she is a long-haired butch queer girl,” July said. “I liked that she would have no way of speaking about that or articulating it, but that it was there within her.”
Likewise, the director knew early on that she wanted Wood to play the protagonist, and reached out to her through mutual friend Carrie Brownstein. (She cast Rodriguez through mutual friend Lena Dunham.) Still, she wasn’t entirely sure that Wood could handle the character until the two had dinner.
“She’s such a shapeshifter, she sings like a songbird — who knew?” July said. “It was when she told me that Old Dolio reminded her of Edward Scissorhands, and that Edward Scissorhands was someone that she deeply related to and a character she always wished she could have played, that I was like, Ah okay. First of all, Edward Scissorhands is a man, and a monster also, so this is really a clear signal to me that there is enough Old Dolio in her that this could be very organic, and it was.”
The Dynes don’t do family bonding. Robert and Theresa treat Old Dolio as a pet or a peer rather than a child, and have since birth. Instead of birthday presents, hugs, and affection, they split everything three ways, a sign of their partnership. Taught by her parents to repress her emotions and individual sense of identity — a symptom of middle class bourgeois comfort — Old Dolio is ill-equipped to deal with the feelings that start to surface when Melanie enters their lives.
“I always would tell Evan, ‘Look you’re having a lot of new feelings in your body around her, and it’s making you mad. You don’t know what to make of it, and so you’re mad.’”
Part of what makes Wood’s performance so compelling is that inability to communicate. With a low growl of a voice, her sentences come out strangled and clipped, as if each one required superhuman effort. To prepare Wood for the role, July had her do an entire scene in grunts, and would constantly remind her not to use her hands as a means of expression.
“Sometimes at the end of a day, she’d be a little tired and her hands would become eloquent again,” July said. “She has very descriptive hands, and I would say ‘Hands!” under my breath and she’d just drop them. I felt with her that I always got away with barely verbalising my direction, because to me, it seemed like enough if I could just feel what I wanted her to do within my own body, and then I could half mumble something and she’d tilt her performance in a particular direction. That wouldn’t have worked at all with anyone else in the cast. Everyone has their own language, and I felt like hers and mine was more about getting into these intellectual spaces.”
July didn’t set out to make an autobiographical film — “We’re not a family of con artists” — but she does admit that certain characteristics or dynamics may have inadvertently crept into her writing.
“Only when I was rereading that first draft was I kind of punched in the gut at the end, like Oh, this connects to some really old, deep stuff that I’d probably not willingly gone towards,” she said. “I would never [intentionally] write about my family, I wouldn’t know how to. I can be most emotionally honest, in a way even revealing, if I have a really ironclad fiction that I believe in. And then I can move freely around my unconscious.”
It’s a process that’s echoed within the movie itself, as Old Dolio attends a parenting class that requires a role reversal session, in which she pretends to be her own child. Freed by the thin veneer of fiction, out pours her longing for physical contact, guidance, and unconditional love — the very things she’s needed from her own parents for so long.
Old Dolio may not be real, but the feelings and ideas she represents most certainly are.