The Beach House (2020) | SHUDDER
I have a lot of love for smaller studios and the features they produce. This is usually because the quality of their catalog has to meet a pedestal of greatness to be in competition with the big boys such as Paramount, Universal, or Fox. In the last few years, smaller studio entries have been more or less good films. Or at least memorable ones. Focus Features and A24 come to mind first when I imagine these underdogs. Both of these have put out exceptional work, making money at the box office and taking home trophies. Plan B studios was responsible for this newest outing, with Focus handling distribution. While no studio is perfect, the cracks in Focus’ penchant for quality are now starting to show with Kajillionaire.
The film was directed by Miranda July; this is her third feature in 15 years and she brings a softness to the story that it requires. This is a good thing because this is a painful film. The themes in Kajillionaire float between emotional abuse, dishonesty, and survival. July takes these heavy themes and keeps them front and center the entire movie. With a small cast to work with, she ensures every character carries their fair share of these heavy, emotional bricks. There is even a very inspiring (and surprising) scene of blackness and stars, evoking the feeling of being lost and confused. It is handled with a wondrous beauty. July can manipulate the queasy uncomfortable feelings of her audience. There were some moments in Kajillionaire that left me feeling ashamed and embarrassed, and that is good directing.
A crime family consisting of a father (Richard Jenkins), mother (Debra Winger), and their adult daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) conduct scams and scrounge for scraps daily. They “rent” an old narrow office to live in, which shares a wall with a car wash. The same wall frequently has car wash foamy soap running down the sides, which makes for cheap laundry detergent and bath wash all in one swoop. Seemingly for this inconvenience, their spineless landlord who owns the car wash lets them bow out of paying up rent at every turn. But the daughter, who’s name is Old Dolio, cooks up a scam to pay back their current debt and get them back in the black -- for at least a day. Her parents, Robert and Theresa, accompany her on a plane trip making a roundtrip adventure, only to “lose her bags” and have the airline drop her $1500 in insurance.
On the flight back, they meet a boisterous and loud woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez - Jane the Virgin). After winning the trust of this already cynical con-family, Melanie is brought into the group. Her day job consists of sometimes going into the homes of old people -- providing an opportunity for her new “scamily” to steal and resell goods. Through her boredom and curiosity, she has decided to be an asset to these people.
The scams continue. Old Dolio, harboring many confusing feelings about how she sees Melanie and the vapid emptiness of parental love from Robert and Theresa, eventually gets the money from the airline con job. After Robert and Theresa make an inappropriate proposal to Melanie involving a hot tub (I’ll let you fill in the blank - just note that Melanie is very attractive) this scene is followed up quickly by them rejecting the desires Old Dolio quietly demands of them.
“You never called me hon before. You can’t even do it now?” Old Dolio squeaks through a monotone voice, grasping the insurance fraud check in her hand like its powerball winnings. Melanie, already heading out the door, takes Old Dolio with her to escape her abusive environment. Old Dolio brings with her the entire $1525 amount from the airline scam, not just her $525 third cut. This is her “payment” for Melanie taking her in.
There are a few fun scenes that come next involving Melanie showing her apartment to Old Dolio, and the pair going grocery shopping. Old Dolio is so conditioned after years of crime that she doesn’t appreciate the tender moments of walking through the supermarket without mapping out the security camera grid. Old Dolio wears loose fitting clothes constantly, and resents how casual and carefree the beautiful Melanie is with her curves and wardrobe. More importantly, she sees Melanie in a way that is confusing and arousing. The notion of what a woman can look like is one of many seemingly foreign concepts Old Dolio faces.
Old Dolio’s parents attempt to reconnect with their daughter in the only way they know how -- through delayed birthday gifts (wrapped in paper marked in the sequential birthday years they have missed, which is all of them) that can be returned for their original value. The ending is not entirely surprising, as the two big pay-off moments have been telegraphed since the second act.
The film ends on a bittersweet note. It showcases that -- in many ways -- con artists are like junkies and can be expected to act as such. Kajillionaire illustrates that abuse wears many masks but at the same time, a deep human connection isn’t always what we expect it to look like. Despite all of these weighty themes, Kajillionaire plateaus and never delivers the emotional punch it teases.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The shining piece of acting here is undoubtedly Evan Rachel Wood as Old Dolio. There is a lot her character is burdened with, and Wood carries the load with confidence. There are some great scenes with her at a birthing class -- illustrating how mothers and their children connect, something Old Dolio pines deeply for. These scenes are a little on the nose, but Wood deftly shows the lost feelings of abandoned love from her parents and the life she wished she had. The cast is full of great talent that deliver the best with what is given.
'Kajillionaire' Comes Up Bitterly Short.
Kajillionaire (2020) | VOD \ IN CINEMAS
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The visual effects aren’t extraordinary here; they just sort of exist in a digestible presentation to help push the story along. The set pieces are convincing, but don’t really capture the interest and stakes of the characters. There is some care to make Old Dolio and her clan look beaten down and desperate. But overall, there isn’t much to sing about here.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
I feel this is the type of film that would have benefitted from an electric soundtrack or a turbulent score. Due to the gentle approach to some of the themes in terms of acting and writing, an extra punch with music could’ve been a powerful accent. Music effectively used can make a difference between so-so and super. I feel such is the case here.
While Miranda July has a solid story here, there isn’t much that I wanted to come back to. It might have been the lulled pacing. Or the lack of a super climactic moment. There is an ostensibly heartfelt dinner scene that was more uncomfortable than moving. This is a depressing movie without evoking change and a love story that doesn’t quite feel earned. Lack of trust and deep cynicism are no doubt experiences that ebb and flow for everyone. Kajillionaire cons us into a fulfilling resolution, but despite its bright moments, comes up bitterly short.