A single month with new releases from both Charlie Kaufman (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Miranda July, is almost enough to make this movie lover forget for a moment that we are suffering through a global pandemic, raging forest fires, and the most obscene presidential campaign of my lifetime. Ms. July is an absurdly talented writer and filmmaker, and it’s her first feature-length film since The Future (2011). Prior to that, she served up Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and has a unique way of displaying her strange life observations. She and Kaufman are masters of quirk, and excel in twisting our minds.
Evan Rachel Wood stars as Old Dolio Dyne, daughter of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (an unrecognizable Debra Winger). This is an oddball family of con artists who live in a run-down, unused office next to the Bubbles, Inc. factory; bubbles seep through the walls into the office where this family sleeps. One of their scams is on the landlord (a surreal character himself) who has to explain to an always-negotiating Robert that “rent is an installment.”
The first part of the film allows us to get to know the family members. We see them pull off stealing mail from a neighboring post office box, and returning stolen goods for the reward. Ms. Wood stays attired in an oversized green tracksuit jacket and has lowered her speaking voice by an octave, adding impact to her monotone liners. She’s socially awkward and likely on the spectrum as she seems to be the smartest of the bunch. Daddy Robert is a control freak and has an emotional disability in regards to California earthquake tremors. He and Theresa show no signs of affection towards each other or Old Dolio.
An airline baggage scam results in the family meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is eager to join the grifters. Old Dolio sees her replacement as both a daughter and partner. Jealousy ensues. Melanie is contrasted to Old Dolio by her bubbly personality, and by a wardrobe that is significantly more revealing than a tattered tracksuit. Old Dolio watches uneasily as Melanie is soon receiving the attention from Robert and Theresa that their own daughter craves.
The second half evolves into a film not so much about cons or heists (the film admits it’s no Ocean’s Eleven), as about family dynamics. The twists and turns find Melanie helping Old Dolio break free of parental over-control in order to experience independence…and pancakes. Learning about warmth and affection from “normal” families is eye-opening for her, and sometimes a little confusing for us to follow. Who is scamming whom, and when are they telling the truth?
Miranda July has created a crime-drama-comedy with plenty of space to let the characters and dialogue breathe. “I’m Mr. Lonely” by Bobby Vinton kicks in periodically, and the score from Emile Mosseri (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) complements it well. On the heels of last year’s team of family scamsters in Parasite, this shaggy group has never met a swindle they wouldn’t try and they never expected it to backfire with their own daughter. The divide between those who like the film and those who don’t was pretty clear after Sundance, and Miranda July will likely never be one to appeal to the masses, but for those of us who connect with her oddball way of seeing life, we appreciate the focus on what makes a family of outsiders click…especially when a superb performance from Evan Rachel Wood drives the film.