July evokes this ethereality through the whimsical imagery of the laundromat (with which they share a wall as illegal tenants) constantly overflowing with millennial-pink suds, as well as a sequence set entirely in the dark but for silvery dust particles, in which Old Dolio is convinced that she has indeed finally died. She somewhat welcomes the experience, because at least it would put a period on her hard-scrabble life.
What she gets instead is a semi-colon in the form of Melanie, a bright young thing who combines the eagerness of Matt Damon’s Linus Caldwell with the so-dazzling-it’s-distracting smile of Julia Roberts’ Tess Ocean. And wouldn’t you know it, with her boring day job punctuated by too much attention from her own mother, Melanie would love to pretend she’s in the latest Ocean’s sequel. Instead the interloper explodes the Dynes’ dynamic from the inside out.
At first, it seems as if the uncharismatic yet self-important Robert is holding his wife and daughter hostage with his compulsive behavior and strictly-regimented commands. But it soon becomes clear that Theresa is just as emotionally abusive to Old Dolio, perhaps more so by dint of being a potential female role model who instead seems baffled that she be expected to show any maternal instinct. “I can’t just say it,” Theresa snaps at Old Dolio in one of the film’s most gut-hollowing moments. “You want us to be all fakey people.” Yet the awful irony is that Theresa has no problem faking affection for Melanie.
Because of course, Kajillionaire isn’t really about scammers. Despite their petty criminal M.O., the Dynes are the blueprint for any toxic family: Despite the seeming equality of splitting their meager winnings three ways (and then going in equally on the next hustle), they cheat their daughter of her childhood yet withhold the reward of adulthood and being treated as a peer. They are narcissists, who brought up their child in their twisted image, and cannot bear the thought of her breaking out of their own broken patterns. Their every interaction is transactional. Old Dolio, whose name was part of a failed swindle, is constantly reminded of her value to them, and how little she is actually worth to her own flesh and blood.
So instead of mere money, what Melanie steals is the Dynes’ cult-like influence over Old Dolio and what she gifts her is the opportunity to build a life beyond the Dynes’ impossible dream. For all that Rodriguez carefully plays Melanie’s comfort in her own skin, and her every microexpression as she too realizes her worth to the Dynes, she is ultimately playing off Wood’s bravura performance. It’s not just a matter of a rangy wig and baggy clothes, of building physical layers while showing how much this young woman has been stripped of social intelligence and empathy and imagination. The utter skill to embody all that Old Dolio lacks, and still make her a hopeful creature, demonstrates a masterful pairing between Wood’s performance and July’s penetrating commentary.