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.

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Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.

Midnight in Paris (2011): Woody Allen’s surprisingly delightful film is the perfect way to enter into Summer Movie Mind: that mental state in which one doesn’t ask much from the movies except to cool down in that delicious air-conditioned dark and laugh at jokes that feel neither too challenging nor too cheap. To look at pretty people onscreen and receive a narrative resolution that works well enough. In short, this film is an amuse-bouche for summer movie watching.

There’s a line somewhere in the middle of Midnight in Paris in which our hero, Gil (Owen Wilson: why didn’t I ever notice what a good, better-looking Woody Allen he is?) tries to explain his love of cities. They’re better than stories, better than films, he explains — because they’re alive. In every neighborhood, around every corner you find something new, alive. He’s so exactly right on this score, and so reminiscent of Allen at his much-missed best, that the film does double duty: it also makes you want to schedule in a week in a great international city.

In this case he’s trying to explain his love of Paris — and if there’s anyone capable of convincing you to love a city, it’s Woody Allen. Those of us who forget everything that was annoying about Manhattan (by which I mean Woody Allen dating the 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway) do so because of the way it’s a love story to the city of New York. This one is even more delightful — because Allen and his Gil stand-in are both outsiders to the city of Paris, thereby drawing all of us in as compatriots. Whereas his New York movies always give me the teeniest barb, as if they’re trying to tell me I can never truly understand the city like a native, this one is just like the most perfect European vacation you can imagine.

The film is really a tale of how Gil finds himself — and the minute he meets Marion Cotillard as Adriana, we know that things have got to get better. She’s a beautiful woman who’s just as prone to romanticizing the past as Gil is — now Cotillard is one of those female actors who make me fall in love with them the minute they appear. But  the whole cast of bit characters are pitch-perfect delight, not least of whom is Adrien Brody in a short part.

I don’t know about you, but I have a feast of summer movies ahead of me: there’s the new X-Men: First Class, and then Harry Potter and Mike Mills’ Beginners (when, oh when, will this arrive at my local theater??), Larry Crowne (JustMeMike and I are planning another long conversation about it!), and Captain America, which I’m only going to see because my Dear Friend has been pumping up enthusiasm so effectively. And there are the weightier films — I’m so excited about Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that I can barely speak; and then there’s the possibility I’ll get access to some of those other films we heard about via the Cannes Film Festival, such as The Artist and We Need to Talk About Kevin. In short, our movie waistlines will engorge with empty calories. Why not start with the perfect amuse-bouche: Woody Allen at his best in years.

With a title like this, it sounds like one of those films that’s going to traffic in indie wackiness, like “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) sounded when you first heard about it.  “Lars” started out quietly wacky, so when it became wonderful and profound it snuck up on you; and while Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” quickly gets to a similar place, the director’s only gesture to kookiness is his (brilliant) decision to cast Keanu Reeves as a mystical orthodontist.  Instead, this film opens with something disturbing — 17-year-old Justin still sucks his thumb and wants so badly to put it behind him — and slowly and gently pries open the question of identity, the crutches we use in lieu of true comfort, and the ways our needs for unequivocal love can be foiled by our unwillingness to offer it to others.

There’s something so primal, so familiar, so depressing about the way Justin (Lou Pucci) hides in a bathroom stall at school to suck his thumb.  He sneaks it in at home, too, but it’s easy to get caught by his father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio).  Neither Mike nor Justin’s mother Audrey (Tilda Swinton) know what to do about it — because they’ve got their own crutches.  At the moment, Audrey’s obsessed with entering a contest to meet a cheesy TV actor, and no matter how much her sons make fun of her, she’s determined to try.  “It’s just for fun!” she exclaims anytime Justin asks if there’s something up in her marriage.  She means it, too — but, like Justin, there’s something she needs that she isn’t getting.

Enter, of all people, a shaggy-haired Keanu Reeves as Perry the orthodontist, who intuits Justin’s secret.  He’s a breath of fresh air because he sees thumbsucking as normal, reasonable — just a problem for maintaining straight teeth.  “It’s an understandable habit,” he says.  “In fact, what’s strange is that people ever quit.”  In a brilliantly wry short sequence (and yes, that’s the second time I’ve used “brilliant” in connection to Keanu Reeves!), he holds forth about all the small, forgotten memories that contribute to our crippled sense of self.  “Some dumb babysitter holds your mouth shut so she can watch her soap operas in peace, and at forty you wonder why you can’t stay married.”  He convinces a skeptical Justin to try hypnosis, which they undertake right there in the dentist’s chair, gazing at one of Perry’s hippie-dippy posters of wolves howling at the moon.  It works:  Justin leaves the office unable to suck his thumb anymore — but the thing is, without his thumb he has nothing, and he’s adrift.  It’s no wonder that when a teacher suggests he try attention-deficit disorder medication, he leaps at the chance to solve his problems with a pill:  the pill becomes his replacement thumb.  And as far as Justin’s concerned, it’s awesome.  Sadly, due to the beautiful strains of Elliott Smith covering Cat Stevens’ song “Trouble” — echoes of how that song infused “Harold and Maude” (1973) — we know his new confidence won’t last.  (BTW: the soundtrack, mostly by the Polyphonic Spree with extra cuts by Smith, is fantastic.)

There are a lot of things to love about this film, but I’ll just focus on three:  first, Lou Pucci as Justin.  He’s so good (and was recognized with Best Actor honors at Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festival).  He alternates between an awful kind of introversion in the earliest scenes — thumb in mouth, hair falling down over his face — to an equally awful new confidence once he becomes the relentless, successful king of his high school debate team.  With his hair brushed back neatly and his deceptively innocent-looking eyes, it’s disconcerting when he takes apart other teams.  “It’s my professional opinion that you’ve become a monster,” his debate coach tells him in the end.  But in between Pucci offers us glimpses of true emotional openness with his big eyes and youthful hope.  Which leads to my second favorite thing:  Pucci’s exchanges with the inscrutable actor, Tilda Swinton, as his mother Audrey.  Not only do they look like mother and son, and not only do they manage to create utterly believable scenes of typical mother-son tension; they also capture with amazing screen chemistry those few lingering moments of a more intense love for one another left over from childhood, a love that renders Pucci as soft and feminine as I’ve ever seen a male actor appear.  I’d say it was quasi-sexual, though I don’t want to creep anyone out:  it’s not creepy, it’s real, and such a beautiful encapsulation of how much Justin wants something from his mother that he can’t possibly articulate.  I’ve never seen anything like it onscreen, and it’s great.  (In fact, considering that we already know how great Tilda Swinton’s acting is, this only further underlines my first point:  it great acting chops in Pucci to keep up with Swinton.)  

The third favorite thing I’ll mention about the film is that “Thumbsucker” somehow manages throughout to show all of its characters in motion — that is, Justin’s problems and his attempts to change don’t appear against a static background, but are likened to the problems and changes of everyone else.  From Perry the orthodontist to Justin’s “normal” little brother, from Audrey to the girl Justin has a crush on, each character sees things go from bad to worse and back again; everyone has a story arc.  No one is normal, and everyone’s searching for the love that might bring them into equilibrium.  The very last scene, in which Justin is back in that sad little orthodontist’s office while Perry sucks down a couple of cigarettes and waxes philosophical, is so perfect I wanted to cry, except it was too true and funny for that. 

The director Mike Mills is already getting great reviews for his new film, “Beginners” (2010) with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, about a man whose father decides to come out of the closet at age 75.  I can assure you I’ll be first in line when it’s released here.