Movie review: Surreal but earnest 'Kajillionaire' follows family of scammers' schemes. It's Miranda July's best feature yet

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Gina Rodriguez (left) stars as "Melanie" and Evan Rachel Wood (right) stars as "Old Dolio Dyne" in director Miranda July's "Kajillionaire." - Matt Kennedy / Focus Features/TNS/TNS

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Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), curtains of long blonde hair hiding her face, baggy clothes hanging off her frame, stands before a parenting class she’s crashed. And in her low, guttural voice, she describes a hypothetical young girl, named Old Dolio, after a homeless man her parents hoped would write her into his will. The girl does not understand “tender feelings,” she says, and as the instructor strokes Old Dolio’s mane, she almost weeps, the sun streaming through a window, bathing this moment of strange intimacy in golden light.

Old Dolio is the protagonist of writer/director Miranda July’s latest film, “Kajillionaire,” following a family of scammers living on the existential edge in sunbaked Los Angeles. This is July’s third feature, after 2005’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and 2011’s “The Future.” And it’s her best yet. July has always been confidently committed to her unique tragicomic tone, but with this film, she reveals more of the big beating heart underneath the stylized irony. “Kajillionaire” is wry but plaintive, surreal yet plausible, a tale of outsiders desperately searching for connection, and finding it in the unlikeliest of ways.

The Dyne family, Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger) and Old Dolio, live on the knife’s edge, scraping by with small-time crookery, scams and mail theft, making their home in an empty office building that should be condemned. Several times a day, they have to collect and dispose of mountains of pink foam that seeps through the wall from the “Bubbles Inc.” next door, though the owner still charges them rent, which they are very behind on. It’s a minute-to-minute existence for the trio.

While running an airline baggage insurance scam, they encounter Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on a cross-country flight. She’s a gorgeous, bubbly gal who seems unnaturally interested in the shabby pair that is Robert and Theresa, so they let her in on the scheme and she tags along. Her willingness to participate in their increasingly desperate thefts is incongruous, but it becomes clear that Melanie is missing something in her life too, though her parents’ embrace of this newcomer throws Old Dolio for a loop.

July’s script is deftly layered, using role-play within the story to illustrate the yearning the characters feel for the warmth of family bonding, such as when the foursome perform some morbid domestic theater at the home of a dying man they intend to rob. Raised not by wolves but by thieves, Old Dolio can only function in a transactional relationship: a deal, a gig, a three-way split. Kindness, or even social niceties, for the sake of it, is as foreign to her as a caress, and Melanie’s bright presence in her drab world rocks her foundation as frequently as the earthquakes that rock LA. While all the actors are splendid, Rodriguez is inexplicably perfectly cast, and she’s startlingly great in this role.

“Kajillionaire” bears comparison to the work of other auteurs that toy with surreality and absurdism, like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. But there’s something so tender and earnest at the core of this film, not just heart, but something sweeter and more pure: a stack of perfect pancakes, presents wrapped with a bow. The soft, pink, gooey center of “Kajillionaire” is like the foam that bursts forth, tumbling down the wall from Bubbles Inc., swept away but never kept at bay. With this strange, dark dramedy, July reminds us that walls can never retain the softest parts of ourselves yearning to break free.

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‘KAJILLIONAIRE’

3.5 stars

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez.

Directed by Miranda July.

Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

Rated R for some sexual references/language.

In theaters Friday

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