Kajillionaire stars Evan Rachel Wood as the daughter of two grifters

Kajillionaire (M, 105 minutes)

3 stars

As a film critic, watching maybe hundreds of films a year, you become a little jaded, and feel like you've seen it all and could have written it yourself.

A scene from Kajillionaire. Picture: Supplied

A scene from Kajillionaire. Picture: Supplied

It can be a nice surprise, then, to avoid reading or watching anything about a film so that you can enjoy it the way the other people in the cinema might.

I loved US indie darling director Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know from 2005, so I knew Kajillionaire was going to be aquiver with quirk.

What I wasn't expecting was to be floored to see Debra Winger, unrecognisable, in the kind of antihero awful role one might expect Holly Hunter to own, as the mean-spirited mother of a grifting dirtbag family.

Theresa (Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins) are fringe-dwelling urban misfits scraping together a phantom existence in Los Angeles using their grown daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) in a range of scams and crimes, starting with mail fraud and escalating as needs arise from insurance fraud to larceny.

Despite their complicated training and effort, their rewards seem meagre, renting an abandoned office space as digs.

Obviously no role models, Theresa and Robert seem barely tolerant of their daughter, treating her as a necessity to their scams rather than displaying any kind of parental feeling.

Old Dolio is awakened to what she might be missing out on when she attends a prenatal class, another scam, and learns about the "breast crawl" some babies do at birth.

This small insecurity grows when the family encounters Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) on a flight from New York (another scam to collect lost luggage insurance).

Coming across at first as the chatty person you're trapped next to on a flight, Melanie soon proves herself an accomplice to their travel insurance gig, and attaches herself to the family for a series of larcenies of ever-escalating proportion.

Initially jealous, Old Dolio's feelings evolve and mutate as this interloper impinges on the family dynamic, toxic though it may have been.

Her laconic style won't suit everyone, though this film isn't so dark it can't be widely appreciated, and it certainly helps that she cast TV's Jane the Virgin, which should draw more audience members than the name Miranda July

July takes the time to give her scenes space to breathe.

One in particular, as the thick-as thieves visit the home of a dying man who knows they are robbing his house but is comforted by the family sounds they make of bickering and conversation and the clicking of cutlery, had me breathless with anxiety.

Her sense of visual humour is honed.

In the office space the family inhabit, the walls seep regularly with bubbles from the factory next door and they wearily wipe them down.

At the Post Office home of their regular mail-pilfering scam, Old Dolio has a complex set of movements to evade notice of the security cameras worthy of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment.

Writer-director July's aesthetic is deadpan performance and minimalist everything else, except for the lighting which sun-washes Los Angeles streets to a pale hue.

Her laconic style won't suit everyone, though this film isn't so dark it can't be widely appreciated.

It certainly helps that she cast Gina Rodriguez, TV's Jane the Virgin, which should draw more audience members than the name Miranda July.

As with that television comedy, Rodriguez bring her warm approach to character, making a counterpoint to these dour figures played by Winger and Jenkins.

They're awful, though the cracks show often enough to tell us that they're genuinely damaged people and not just low- level shysters.

Physically, too, they look ruined. It's great ego-less work.

What attracts Melanie to these people?

While she imagines herself the centre of some kind of Danny Ocean heist plot, this family don't seem to want success.

The film, however, belongs to Evan Rachel Wood.

Kajillionaire is about Old Dolio's awakening from a life of abuse.

Wood develops an entire physical library of mannerisms for the girl who has grown up apart from society and who has spent her life trying not to be seen.

This story Quirky look at scamming family first appeared on The Canberra Times.