Kajillionaire by Miranda July – Shimmering Brilliance, Awkward Tragedies, Everyday Deities

I first heard the name Miranda July about 20 years ago, dropped casually yet reverentially from the lips of Sarah Sharkey-Pearce, one of the smartest, coolest young artists I knew. And so, although it would be a few years before I came across any actual artworks by her, Miranda July’s name stayed with me. Brimming with mystery, music and playful potential, how could it not? Miranda July is of course a fictional name (as if all names aren’t fictional at birth, and in death too for that matter), yet like everything Miranda July invents her name is a mashup of familiar components sprinkled with a personal fairy dust that somehow always sparkles.

A few years later I stumbled across a piece by Miranda July online. It was an interactive project called Learning to Love You More, in which she gave the general public assignments, the results of which she would post on a website. Her assignments were things like “Take a photograph of your parents kissing” or “Braid someone’s hair” or ‘Reenact a poster you had as a teenager” or “Make a protest sign and protest”. It was a wonderful project in the best spirit of the early days of the web. And although it sounds a lot like TikTok, in reality it felt much more transgressive and adventurous. Though maybe that’s just me being art-snobby.

I’m prompted to think about Miranda July today, indeed I have thought about her most every day for the past few weeks, because of her latest feature film, her third, released in September but only viewed by me a few weeks ago. It is called Kajillionaire, and if you want to watch a beautiful, touching, hilarious and utterly original film of shimmering brilliance then I recommend you go see it.

I tend to watch a lot of movies anyway, but COVID has really pushed me over the edge. I haven’t seen everything that has come out in the past couple years, but I’ve seen a lot. Kajillionaire is one of the three recent films I have seen that has blown my mind. And since I can’t seem to shut up about them to my kids I figure I may as well write about them. The others are Mother! and Midsommar. The three feel connected by the fact that each presents a profoundly disruptive, revealing, magical and ultimately transformative take on the world as as seen through the eyes and experiences of a deeply scarred woman. Not that other films don’t offer takes on the world as experienced by women, of course they do, but these three films in particular are so unsettling, insightful and potent that I feel the need to grapple with their meaning in writing, if only to better understand how strongly I feel about them. So this is my first of three related reflections. You could call them reviews.

Interestingly, One thing I just noticed in looking up the links to Mother and Midsommar is that both are somewhat preposterously referred to as ‘horror’ films on their Wikipedia pages and in their promo. In a sense they are horrifying, as is Kajillionaire, but not in the way the term is usually used. Maybe all truly disruptive films about women are horrifying for the studios and critics, if not for the general public.

Kajillionaire is however, the admittedly shocking story of a young woman raised – and brutally caged – by America’s narcissistic consumerism, (presented here as familial anti-consumerism yet amounting to its opposite, a dishonest, destructive, greedy disinterest in the care of others). As the film unfolds in layers of heartbreakingly beautiful absurdity, the protagonist (played wondrously by Evan Rachel Wood) slowly identifies the contours of her psychological prison and in the end, thanks to an intimacy unexpectedly conferred upon her by the universe, she locates the key to her freedom and escapes into the waiting arms of love and life.

Kajillionaire reminds me of a Ghibli film. Female heroine? Check. A world similar to ours yet populated by fantastical characters and moments? Check. Captivating and endlessly surprising journey of self-discovery? Check. Stunning art direction? Check. Personal courage, personal transformation and everyday deities inhabiting supermarkets and backyards and bus stops? Check.

The deities piece is maybe less obvious in Kajillionaire, since superficially anyway the gods (and goddesses) are entirely absent from this film. Yet to me they seem everpresent. Pagan demons and minor deities manifesting momentarily as globs of foam, newborn babies, earthquake tremors, dying strangers, bathroom blackouts. Deeper dimensional beings whose essence is repressed emotion – desperation, delight, despair, desire – romp in and out of each extraordinary scene like catbuses, Totoros and dust mites, taking the form of bus transfers, Walmart receipts and empty hot tubs. And amidst it all two lost souls desperately seeking trust and togetherness finally find each other at the check-out counter.

Like Mother! and Midsommar, many if not most critics have missed most of the depth of Kajillionaire, seeing it as cute but weird or dull or confused or self-indulgent or unrealized in some other nebulous way. Of course none of those films are any of those things. But since you, dear reader, probably aren’t unlucky enough to be an actual film critic, I expect you to find and enjoy in Kajillionaire all of its tremendous humanity, humour and hope.

Thank you, Miranda July, for Kajillionaire. It’s amazing.

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