Miranda July’s second feature film, The Future, opens with a black screen and the trembling sound of a scratchy, delicately feminine voice. When the scene finally fades in, we see that we are listening to a talking cat with a broken paw. The cat is excited about a sudden twist in its fate. The cat’s world used to consist of three things, she tells us, the light, the dark, and “bird,” saying the word, adorably enough, with a sweeping motion of her paw. But now there is something else: hope for love, because a young couple has come to adopt the little animal and bring it into their home. For the first time the cat makes a purring sound, which means, “I am cat which is yours.”
It is an odd scene that smacks of July’s distinctive sense of off-kilter humor and endearing sensitivity (always teetering, but never quite falling into sentimentality). It is also is deceivingly simple, capturing in a few unassuming lines July’s entire project. As we can assume from the title, The Future is, in part, about time, and in the opening scene, we are witnessing a cat entering into a new understanding of time. There used to be only light and dark, but now there is hope, and it is hope – that longing for something that the future may bring – that gives shape to our understanding of time. It is also a movie about love, or, more accurately, the hope for the possibility of love.
The voice of the cat, named Paw-Paw, is that of the filmmaker, July, who plays another character in the film, Sophie. Like the cat, Sophie is a woman haunted by a sense of hope and possibility. When we meet her, she is with her partner, Jason (Hamish Linklater) on a couch in their apartment, head buried in her computer. Sophie and Jason are both aimless sorts. Jason works out of the apartment as computer customer service representative. Sophie is a children’s dance instructor, but she is recently obsessed with the dance school receptionist’s YouTube video, a silly, salacious dance video that has received thousands of hits.
At first you think July is using computers as a way of articulating our disconnectedness, but like everything in The Future, the image is multilayered. These two characters are perpetually hiding and reaching out, trying to discover their life’s shape and searching for some significance. And everything they encounter, including the goofy YouTube video dance, may offer an answer – or at least the possibility of an answer. Sophie begins to make her own decidedly unsexy and awkward dance videos.
But it is Paw-Paw who is the real catalyst for Sophie and Jason’s soul gazing. When they determine they have thirty days before they will pick up their new pet, the pair spins into an existential crisis. Taking care of the cat will restrict their freedom, they realize. They won’t be able to come and go as they please, leave Los Angeles for long periods of time, or worry about merely themselves. This means, in the minds of these characters, that in a month begins a five year period of nothingness, and after that they’ll be forty, which is close enough to fifty, and when you are fifty, life is basically over.
It’s Woody Allen neuroticism with a flakey, California-twist.
The future, in The Future, is a conflicted thing, and it is the setting for the film’s central tension between possibility and restriction. The future could bring happiness and purpose, but also death, loneliness, and the eradications of our delusions about promised fulfillment and a potential encounter with life’s meaninglessness.
Left with just thirty days to sort all of this out, Jason and Sophie decide to quit their lives’ responsibilities and open themselves up to whatever possibilities that present themselves during that time. Jason quits his computer job and volunteers to go door to door selling $10 trees to Los Angeles residents as a way of combating global warming. Sophie, perpetually forlorn and on the brink of despair, somehow falls into a sexual relationship with a sleazy, single father, Marshall (David Warshofsky), whom she meets when, on a whim, she calls a phone number that is on the back of a sketch. Jason bought that sketch just because he happened to be standing near Marshall and his daughter in the animal clinic. You see, in July’s world everything is interconnected and semi-providential, even if providence’s shape resembles the randomness of chaos.
Despite their best attempts at realizing their uncertain dreams, the thirty days only end up destroying the only thing they had in the first place: each other. Left with few options, Jason falls back on the only solution he’s comfortable with: magically stopping time in an effort to keep things from changing. It is a little bit of magical realism tossed in as a metaphor for our tendency to resist the inevitability of change.
July has a distinctive, clear-minded style, and its visceral appeal comes through its off-handed humor and endearing sincerity. The Future is also marked by an unshakeable sense of honesty, a willingness to bare itself in emotionally vulnerable ways. But July’s film feels trapped in the same ways her characters are, floundering in a world that begs for meaning but never gives birth to any. Hindered by the filmmaker’s own neurosis, it can feel like a psychological diagnosis, vivid but closed of.
That, of course, is July’s point. We are all isolated, separated beings who resist and cherish our loneliness. Essentially existential comedy, July’s work ends up feeling much like Woody Allen’s in so far as it points towards happiness as a byproduct of our resignation to the fact that life really doesn’t get any better or more meaningful. But unlike Allen’s work, there is little occasion for sexy, light-hearted frivolity — the very things that makes Allen’s despairing, meaningless world so enjoyable to dwell in. Instead, in The Future, even sex and romance reinforce our isolation, existing here as a form of self-abuse. Despite its bubbly charm, July’s movie presents us with a vision of life that is very dark indeed, with joy proving as fleeting as the here and now.