Evan Rachel Wood's character in "Kajillionaire" works hard not to be noticed.
Although the young woman, called Old Dolio, is tiny, she wears clothing sized for an NBA center. Her lank locks have been styled, if you can call it that, to hang over her face, like she's wearing a hair burqa. Her voice is deep, barely emerging from her chest, as if she's reluctant to let her words into the universe. And she moves through the world Charlie Brown-style, with her head facing the ground.
The character is almost robotic, but Wood gives her a sweetness that is hugely appealing. It's a bold performance, both in its physicality and its emotional availability, which makes the unfolding of the hilarious, moving new film from writer-director Miranda July even more beautiful.
Old Dolio is from a family of con artists. Her parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) have raised her not to connect with other people, apparently on the theory that you can't be hurt if you don't have emotions. All three family members are afraid to trust the world — something we can all relate to now — but on an airplane trip that's part of an elaborate scam, they meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is so full of vitality that she forces them to engage. Gradually, she shows Old Dolio that it might be worth putting faith in someone.
It's difficult to describe the humor of "Kajillionaire," which is so delicate it'll probably evaporate before I get to the end of writing this sentence. Some of it consists of sight gags that hark back to a starving Charlie Chaplin devouring a shoe (in one scene Old Dolio, trying to steal from a post office box, keeps pulling and pulling on what turns out to be an absurdly long package). Some of it has to do with the distinctive absurdity of July's language, as when Old Dolio's dad tells her she can't appreciate the beauty of an expensive tie "because you're not of gentle birth." And some of it is just plain bonkers, like the thrice-daily ritual that forces the clan to be at home, in an office park where they're squatting, to scrape giant mounds of pink foam cascading down their walls.
Does the foam symbolize their lifestyle, lived as if it's in a bubble? Is it just a wacky physical bit? Is it a sign that all of us are capable of normalizing peculiar behavior if we do it often enough to forget how weird it is? All of those things?
Melanie helps steer Old Dolio toward the human contact she never realized she was missing. An attempt to steal knickknacks from a lonely, elderly man, for instance, elicits from him a plea to play his piano and clink his silverware — in other words, to remind him of the sounds of life. And a maternity class that Old Dolio attends, for complicated reasons, helps her see that her own mother's hands-off approach is unorthodox and cruel.
July is the opposite of cruel. She has affection for all of her characters. Even the psychologically damaging parents are depicted with humor and understanding, as if to make us wonder not how they could be so horrible, but what happened to them to make them this way. When their plane lands, and they respond uncomprehendingly, as if the world might be ending, there's a sense that perhaps mental illness has forced them into weirdly sheltered lives, even when it would be easier to actually participate in the world.
The generosity of the filmmaking pays off big as Old Dolio, who seems to be in her 20s and whose name might come from the Spanish word for "to feel pain," becomes aware of the richer life she could be leading. I've heard "Kajillionaire" described as a coming-of-age movie, which doesn't seem quite right. It's more like a coming-alive movie, and a gorgeous one at that.