The opening scene of Miranda July’s The Future shows Sophie (July) and Jason (the eminently appealing Hamish Linklater) at opposite ends of their sofa. It’s a nice shot, with their identical heads of dark brown curls, their big eyes, their shared quirky sense of humor. This is a couple dedicated to their own perpetual youth. Later, Jason strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely old man and suddenly realizes that the old man has exactly the same sofa — as well as a lot of the same quirky items of household art — making Jason realize this man might be a kind of cosmic mirror of Sophie and Jason’s future. Oh yes: trepidation about the future is the central theme of this film.
Here’s the thing: my parents used to have that sofa too — a comfortable, classic 1970s deep brown wide-wale corduroy. It was great for sitting and reading in exactly the position Sophie and Jason have assumed here. For little reasons like this, I wish this film had captured me from the get-go.
Instead, I had problems with the film’s central conflict: Sophie and Jason have found an old, injured cat; they have reluctantly decided to adopt it; and this prospect makes them uneasy about becoming adults. The cat’s so sick that the vet only expects it to live for six months or so — unless, the vet says, it bonds to its new owners and is very well cared for (and yes, the cat has a voiceover in which it explains how much it has already bonded to them. I can just imagine July’s haters gagging on that plot element). At first I liked this conceit: the young couple determines to leave the never-never land of their perpetual youth and decides to become, simultaneously, both parental figures and caregivers for an old, dying animal. No wonder it brings up all manner of fears about the future.
What’s less persuasive is their shared sense that true adulthood and middle age are equivalent to death. “We’ll be 40 in five years,” Sophie says fearfully, those lips open with quivering uncertainty; to which Jason responds, “Forty is basically 50. And then after 50, the rest is just loose change.” By “loose change,” he means “it’s not enough to add up to anything.” When the vet also tells them they can’t take the cat home for 30 days, they take bold steps to prepare for/repress the future: they quit their clockwatching jobs and decide to let the universe tell them what to do with their lives, permitting them a rare, temporary openendedness. The remainder of the film is about those 30 days of freedom — Jason’s improbable and deeply unsuccessful adventure as an environmental canvasser, Sophie’s determination to create 30 new dances and post videos of herself on YouTube. Instead, their relationship goes to hell.
This premise only worked for me about half the time. I’ve never had a problem with getting older; hell, I like myself a lot more now than I did during parts of my 20s. I’m baffled by those who indulge in crises around the arbitrary ages of 30, 40, or 50. In addition, coming from a line of long-lived women as I do, the notion that everything after 50 will be “loose change” makes me yawn. I can appreciate, however, the notion that the prospect of taking on a pet might bring on anxieties about one’s capacity to be parental. Children, sick pets, one’s aging parents — who doesn’t have fears of becoming permanently responsible, prepared to deal with death and grief?
Compounding my ambivalence about the basic plot structure is July’s weird on-screen persona. She seems to like to make us wince a little when watching her. She plays self-serious, sensitive, artistic types — it was the same in her début film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2007) — and here, as Sophie, she’s a bit too prone to breaking into interpretive dance, and often while wearing creepily weird items of clothing (see above photo). No wonder she has real haters out there, as I learned from reading an unusually thoughtful profile piece in the NY Times Magazine by Katrina Onstad. But what is it that they hate? The cringe-making personalities she depicts onscreen are supposed to be gently funny, not admirable. These aren’t hipsters — as Onstad puts it, “in July’s work, nobody is cool.” She’s poking gentle fun of hipsters, but not doing it so much that she loses their attention. She clearly has great affection for quirkiness (to wit, the cat who narrates the film). But her focus doesn’t end there: she wants to show what happens when such people get really, really stressed — and she seems to want to spark in us the most passionate desire for human connection.
But a talking cat? Ugh. Named Paw-Paw (because of its injured paw)? Is there a line between her mockery of the twee and her full embrace of it? And let me note, too, that the cat is voiced by July, who has an unusual and somewhat grating squeaky voice. It’s worth noting that when I emailed with the blogger/critic JustMeMike about possibly doing a joint review of this film, he was pretty skeptical about The Future‘s similarities to Mike Mills’ Beginners, released earlier this summer, which had a talking dog, a woman prone to elaborate bodily postures, and a high level of quirkiness. Perhaps it goes without saying, but July and Mills are married. (JMM: this film also touches on the subject of magic.)
Ultimately, that’s the thing about July. Watching films by this filmmaker demands that you wrestle with her odd persona, both in and out of character, as well as her strange mixture of cutesiness and the dead-serious, occasionally awful dialogue mixed with occasionally heartbreaking moments of truth. My ultimate take? This is just not as successful a film as her earlier Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2007; nevertheless, you can bet I’ll go see her next film.