My first viewing of Kajillionaire (Miranda July, 2020) left me with a lot more questions than answers. How was the film’s protagonist going to integrate herself into society after living an unconventional lifestyle? Did she and her love interest have a solid enough foundation to build a healthy relationship? What were they going to do about money? In short, were they going to be okay?
There’s a lot about Kajillionaire that I can’t relate to—it follows the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), the adult child of grifter parents who barely scrape by through petty theft and con jobs in Los Angeles, California; whereas I grew up comfortably middle class in the suburbs of Central Florida. However, I can certainly relate to Kajillionaire as the story of a young woman following a nontraditional path to adulthood. I graduated from college at the start of a global pandemic and moved back home with my parents, and now two years later, I feel like I’m only just beginning to put the pieces of my life together. The questions above might as well apply to me: Am I going to be able to integrate myself back into society following two years of isolation and stagnation? Will I ever find love or be financially independent? Am I going to be okay?
Many critics have described Kajillionaire as a coming of age story, with director Miranda July placing it into the subgenre of the delayed coming of age film (“Miranda July on Kajillionaire”), which views the transition from childhood to adulthood as more symbolic than literal, often occurring well after one has actually become a legal adult. In his review of Joachim Trier’s 2021 film The Worst Person in the World, titled “The Wonder and Horror of Delayed Adulthood”, Vikram Murthi suggests that the delayed coming of age film speaks to a generation of Millenials and Gen Zs (a category that I fall into) who have been increasingly hesitant to reach “traditional” adult milestones like moving out, pursuing higher education, settling into a career, or starting a family, even since before the pandemic. Murthi notes that Trier attributes this not to generational laziness or lack of ambition, but rather to a variety of outside factors: the lack of opportunities for professional growth and economic prosperity, a growing sense of isolation amongst young people, and a general sense of hopelessness for the future due to things like climate change. The nontraditional path to adulthood is also often a uniquely queer experience, with common societal markers of maturity, particularly marriage and childrearing, historically being “not only inaccessible but undesirable” to queer people. Regardless of gender identity or sexuality, those who eschew societal norms on the path to adulthood end up redefining it through more personal experiences, such as overcoming trauma, essentially coming of age through “self-realization gleaned from denouncing a painful past and reconstructing an independent, complete self” (Jaffe, “Queer Time”).
While Old Dolio doesn’t openly lament things like still living with her parents, not having a job, or never having had a romantic relationship, her delayed coming of age is certainly depicted as a journey of self-realization through overcoming a traumatic past, culminating in a queer romance. According to her father Robert (Richard Jenkins), Old Dolio “learned to forge before she learned to write”, and he and his wife Theresa (Debra Winger) have never shown their daughter an ounce of affection, believing it insulting to treat her like a child even when she was, well, a child. Instead, Robert and Theresa view Old Dolio as an accomplice in their schemes, leaving very little in the way of a genuine parent-child relationship or human connection of any kind. Having grown up in a toxic environment with little agency, Old Dolio ultimately comes of age through the process of confronting her childhood trauma, discovering her sense of self outside of her family, and opening herself up to love for the first time.
The plot of Kajillionaire unfolds as a series of schemes and misadventures, which lead to life-altering events that propel Old Dolio into her belated journey towards maturation. Miranda July’s quirky directorial style depicts these events in a comedic light; in the film’s opening sequence, Old Dolio tucks and rolls into a post office like a jewel thief on a heist, reaching her arm through a PO box and stealing packages from neighboring boxes. In another scene, she returns a stolen watch expecting a cash reward—instead, she is given a nonrefundable gift certificate for a massage. The drab office space where Old Dolio and her family live is connected to a soap factory, with pink soap bubbles spilling down the walls at regular intervals. Even the film’s indie comedy charm, complete with a dreamy score and soft pastel aesthetic, doesn’t undercut its heavier themes, and most of these scenes have rather sad implications. Robert and Theresa often send Old Dolio to do the dirty work in their scams, relying on her innocent and youthful appearance to dupe trusting strangers. When Old Dolio decides to use her massage gift certificate, she’s so touch-starved that she can only go through with it laying fully-clothed on the table with the masseuse hovering her hands over her back—and even this is so overwhelming it causes her to cry.
Change begins when Old Dolio and her parents are given an eviction notice, forced to come up with $1500 in overdue rent or be kicked out in two weeks’ time. With the family’s preferred method of mail theft thwarted by a new security camera installed inside the post office, Old Dolio concocts a new scheme using a free trip to New York City she’d won in a phone contest. She and her parents will get on the plane together but fly back to L.A. in separate seats, with Robert and Theresa “accidentally” taking Old Dolio’s luggage. She, then, can report the loss with traveler’s insurance and be issued a check for $1575. Old Dolio learns that the traveler’s insurance check may not arrive in time to pay the rent, but it’s through this scheme that Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), the friendly stranger who helps them with their fear of airplane turbulence on the return flight to L.A. They end up letting Melanie in on their schemes and she becomes a willing participant, much to Old Dolio’s ire. She sizes Melanie up in the only way she knows how by asking, “How is this person an asset?”
Melanie tries to be amiable, and is truly non judgemental about Old Dolio and her family’s situation. Old Dolio is having none of it until a failed heist involving one of Melanie’s elderly clients from the eyeglass store she works at ends up forging a bond. The dying old man asks Melanie and company to pretend to be his family and play out domestic scenes in his house so he won’t die alone. It’s Old Dolio who ends up easing him to death, telling him to let go and seemingly giving him permission to pass away peacefully. Just as the coming of age often involves the act of letting something go, the loss of one identity to another, it may entail a period of grief or the need for catharsis. Seeing her parents rushing to comfort Melanie instead of her seems to trigger a response in Old Dolio to mourn the loss of the childhood she never had, or the person she never got to be in the absence of her parents’ affection.
Earlier in the film, Old Dolio is paid by a pregnant acquaintance to attend a parenting class in her place, where she ends up watching a video of a newborn baby performing a “breast crawl”, instinctively finding and latching onto its mother’s breast shortly after birth. The instructor notes that babies who are placed on the mother’s abdomen after birth have better chances of bonding than babies who are placed on a cot (it’s no surprise when Theresa tells Old Dolio she was placed on a cot). After returning home and finding that the traveler’s insurance check has actually arrived, Old Dolio confronts Robert and Theresa over their shortcomings, telling them that they couldn’t parent her unless it was a job. Theresa tries to make her feel guilty for essentially wanting to be loved, even rejecting Old Dolio’s offer to take the $1575 check in exchange for simply calling her ‘hon’, but it’s Melanie who steps up to do it, taking Old Dolio away from her family for the first time and promising her a “full-service deal” of things her parents never did for her in exchange for the check.
While Old Dolio is initially hesitant to leave Robert and Theresa, Melanie helps her realize that they were barely parents to her at all, even comparing her dependence on a toxic relationship to addiction. A near death experience involving an earthquake finds Old Dolio emerging with a completely new outlook on life, almost as if she has been reborn, and is finally ready to find closure with her parents. During this time, the tenuous alliance between Old Dolio and Melanie blossoms into a romance.
I came away from my first viewing of Kajillionaire thinking it was a good example of a movie with queer representation that wasn’t necessarily about being queer, even though the romance was one of the things that initially drew me in. Upon a second viewing, I realized that the film’s queerness might be more intrinsic than I originally thought. The characters never face blatant homophobia, and Old Dolio’s struggle isn’t necessarily in coming out, but the film could serve as an allegory for the struggles of coming of age while queer. It speaks to an experience of queer people who might remain closeted until adulthood for fear of being disowned for their gender identity or sexuality, resulting in a delay in pursing traditionally “adult” things like romantic relationships until they feel safe and accepted enough to do so (Jaffe, “Queer Time”).
Robert and Theresa attempt to appease Old Dolio after the earthquake by buying her eighteen birthday presents, one for each year of her life up to adulthood (though Old Dolio is now twenty-six). It ends up being a ruse to steal the traveler’s insurance money from Melanie’s apartment—along with the rest of her belongings. As she and Old Dolio stand in her empty apartment, completely bare save for the eighteen presents, they begin to laugh and cry together, with Melanie saying “So what?” Old Dolio realizes that all of the gifts have receipts, calling back to the beginning of the film when she and her parents used old receipts to return stolen items in exchange for cash. She reasons that if her parents left her a third of the traveler’s insurance money, $525, it’s their version of finding closure, essentially saying, “We can only ever be how we are. But we love you, and we wish you well.” The gifts do indeed total out to Old Dolio’s third, and the movie ends with her and Melanie kissing tenderly in a department store.
Despite not knowing what the future has in store for Old Dolio and Melanie, there’s something cathartic about watching them find each other, and watching Old Dolio find peace within herself. It gives me courage to laugh at the absurdity of adulthood and the idea that I’m too late and too old to try new things in my twenties when I have the rest of my life ahead of me, and courage to know that fear and uncertainty are a part of growing up. It’s both scary and exciting to think that I might never truly grow up in a traditional sense or “have it all together”, but I do have the opportunity to grow and reinvent myself many times over the course of my lifetime.
Jaffe, Sara. “Queer Time: The Alternative to ‘Adulting’.” JSTOR Daily, 10 Jan. 2018, https://daily.jstor.org/queer-time-the-alternative-to-adulting/.
“Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the art of parenting.” YouTube, uploaded by The A.V. Club, 21 Sept. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hgMiC0zkZM.
Murthi, Vikram. “The Wonder and Horror of Delayed Adulthood.” The Nation, 10 Mar. 2022, https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/worst-person-joachim-trier/.