One night in October 2015 — an entire world ago — I thought I was going to the theater, but it turned out I was joining a new society.
That phrase, “New Society,” was the title of the show I was planning to see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in an intimate experimental space. The show’s creator — and, I thought, sole performer — was the artist Miranda July.
But once it began I realized that actually, we in the audience were the performers. July came out onstage and in consternation told us that she’d forgotten all her lines and we’d have to collaborate to do something else. We’d participate in a kind of thought experiment but pretend it was real: What if we were all locked inside this theater, with an apocalypse raging outside, and had to build a new society?
Everyone was a little surprised by this development. But we quickly accepted it and got to work. After all, people who buy tickets to a Miranda July show tend to be the type who already know Miranda July shows are bound to be unusual.
Over the next two hours, with July’s guidance and prompting, we wrote a constitution, came up with laws, composed and learned a national anthem, and created a flag. We learned rituals for our new society. July had one audience member come to the stage and cut strips off of July’s silky green shirt, to use as bandages “in case anyone got hurt.” We thought together about what was happening outside the walls, and were thankful to be inside.
During intermission, July asked audience members to volunteer to share skills, and someone taught a yoga class. July offered couples counseling to several real-life couples in the audience, who kissed onstage later and were met with applause. At some point, July broke one of our rules, and we had to “kick her out” and elect a new mayor, who then, through a series of pre-scripted questions, restored her back to the community.
It was super weird, but super fun, and we left having thought about the social bonds of our group, an audience that was more than just people all watching the same performer. We’d seen each other in a way that’s unusual for a night at the theater.
I thought about that night while watching Kajillionaire, July’s delightfully titled new movie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened in theaters on September 25, with a digital rollout coming soon. Something about Kajillionaire stuck to my insides. It’s a bold film aesthetically, but one with what seems like a silly premise: A family of mostly incompetent, eccentric, small-time con artists (played by Evan Rachel Woods, Richard Jenkins, and Debra Winger) pull a scam involving lost luggage and travel insurance. But their lives change radically when their scam puts them in touch with a buoyant and friendly young woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who upends their insular — but definitely not close-knit — way of life.
Unconventional and off-kilter people populate July’s work, and they’re usually very self-conscious about it, aware that the glasses through which they view life are not quite the same prescription as everyone else’s. The resulting funhouse mirror effect means they often reach out to touch one another, but usually flail and miss — which doesn’t mean they stop trying.
July’s 2005 debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know is a story of awkward people having awkward social, romantic, and sexual encounters with other awkward people, which makes the audience feel awkward, maybe in a good way. Her 2011 follow-up The Future centers on two people whose quirks would seem to make them a good match, except their lives are going nowhere. Their trajectory changes when they adopt a sick cat named PawPaw, who then becomes one of the film’s narrators.
Kajillionaire follows in those predecessors’ footsteps, with the con artist daughter — saddled with the name Old Dolio by her parents — living a stunted life governed by strange rules her parents taught her. Melanie’s arrival in Old Dolio’s life rearranges her emotional furniture and makes her feel things she hasn’t before, chief among them the unsettling sensation of having someone see her as an individual worthy of attention and affection. Old Dolio’s parents haven’t been very parent-ly; they didn’t give her birthday gifts, they rarely touch her, and they never tell her they love her. They live in an abandoned office where they sleep in cubicles and scrape soap off the wall that bleeds in from the laundromat next door. They split everything three ways and speak in monotones and don’t smile much unless they’ve pulled a scam. Melanie represents something altogether different.
Kajillionaire is July’s best and most accomplished movie as a director thus far — and probably her most accessible, too. Visually, it’s both recognizable and a little strange; ordinary settings like fluorescent-lit rooms and department stores and the post office are the backdrop for a collection of characters with thoroughly odd mannerisms. It’s rich in July’s signature quirk, but it’s not inscrutable. Kajillionaire is a movie about love, and loneliness, and it’s funny and bittersweet and beautiful.
As in July’s previous films, Kajillionaire feels like it dwells in a slightly uncanny valley, or maybe is governed by a not-quite-discernible dream logic that is July’s alone. None of her characters are her, but it’s easy to believe they are part of her, little bits of her psyche she plucks out and spins into life.
The characters in July’s fiction writing have the same quality, noticeable in her 2015 novel The First Bad Man, as well as short stories frequently published in major magazines and in the 2007 collection with the revealing title No one belongs here more than you. We’re usually in their headspace, hearing their thoughts, which are delivered with a cadence that’s open, almost childlike, totally lacking in guile. For the most part, they have not found the world to be entirely hospitable — but they approach it wholeheartedly anyhow.
That open-heartedness marks July’s work, and probably contributes, a little, to the bafflement people seem to feel when they encounter it. “Miranda July Called Before Congress to Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is” an Onion headline announced in 2012. The story describes a group of senators who grows increasingly frustrated while trying to discern what July is on about as she makes banners and crafts and tells them to look at a candle. “Now, when you wake up in the morning, what do you say to yourself?” Mitch McConnell says. “What is it that compels you to do all these things that you do?”
The joke, eight years ago, was that July is a weirdo — and indeed, she’s done little to dispel that notion; in fact, she clearly likes it. One of her projects last year was an Instagram-mediated art project in which she and actress Margaret Qualley seemingly litigated their crumbling relationship, posting videos recorded from parties and homes and press junkets that made audiences feel as if they were listening in to something very personal. They were play-acting at reaching out across a vast virtual divide, although the two share an intense relationship in real life as well. The project wasn’t stagey or extremely thought out ahead of time; there was no team of writers pitching storylines; and they weren’t trying to sell anything. It was just a piece of delight that tried to get at something real about being human.
That complicated concept, “being human,” is easy for artists to say they want to explore. It encompasses everything. But watching Kajillionaire, I realized what sets July’s work apart, at least for me, is that she really seems to love people. While working on the screenplay for The Future, she got obsessed with the people who sell things in the Penny Saver — that little classified ads circular — and ended up working with a photographer to create a book of portraits of 13 of them, fixing ordinary and slightly eccentric individuals in time, telling us they’re worth looking at, just like anyone else. The characters in July’s films and stories are strange, and at times they’re actually bad people. But her work doesn’t try to divide all of these flawed people into categories — the good ones and the bad ones, the villains and the heroes, the weirdos and the normals. They’re just people in a society.
The result is that if you, too, feel like a weirdo peeking in at the world (and I think a lot of us do), July’s work — if you can get on her wavelength — can make you feel as included in her society of oddballs as I did that night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Everybody gets to bring their own pair of glasses to the party, and sometimes we fail to connect with one another the way we want to, but eventually we might get it. The people of Kajillionaire are never going to be the coolest or have their lives all together, but they’re awfully lucky to have each other.
And so July likes to make the audience feel a little uncomfortable. Weird sex, scatological fixations, and contact embarrassment comes with the territory, because it’s the stuff of existence. People swing and miss, or do things they don’t even understand; we get a little nervous because it is just a little too real. But that is, of course, the point.
The first story in 2007’s No one belongs here more than you. is written in the voice of a woman who lives upstairs from a man who has epilepsy and, at a moment when she should have helped him, falls asleep next to him in the yard instead. It feels like an attempt to explain an inexplicable action from inside the person who did something odd and dangerous.
The narrator’s job is partly to write little inspirational pep talks to the readers of a magazine she works at, Positive, meant to be read by people with HIV. And the story is peppered with snippets of those pep talks, which are corny, for sure; that’s kind of the point. But as the narrator reveals her life to us, we get a glimpse of something else — an optimism that seems ridiculous. Life disappoints the optimistic. But rather than ridiculing her narrator, July honors her, and gives her — by way of a silly pep talk in a fictional newspaper — the final word:
Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.
The narrator’s sweetly sentimental encouragements to her unknown reader are a kind of key to unlocking Miranda July’s work, a note of grace in the midst of the weirdness of life. They’re a bit of benediction. The world is for us, and we are here for each other. It’s okay to feel awkward and out of place, but you are loved.
Kajillionaire opens in select theaters on September 25. It premiered on digital platforms on October 16.