It has been a long six years since we have seen a feature film from Miranda July, the coyly svelte poster girl of independent cinema. But in the time since her debut feature “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005), July has been a busy little bee, toiling away in the mad curio that is her brain. She published the exquisitely painful collection of short stories “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” finished a non-fiction book and staged the performance exhibit “Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About” — the inspiration for her new film “The Future.” Whoof. Try saying all that in one breath.
The long intermission between films has allowed her to mature and even experiment as a writer/director/actress/anything-else-you-like. “The Future” is the grown-up version of “Me and You,” a film about adults behaving like children. And here, the grown-ups are bracing themselves against time’s arrow.
Sophie (played by July, of course) is a thirtysomething dance instructor. She lives in a sparse LA apartment with her shut-in boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater, with a haircut that matches July’s). They’ve been dating for four years, but their intimacy is something like that of two co-habitating cats: cozy and comfortable. And how apropos, because it’s a cat named Paw Paw (voiced by July like vocalized chicken scratch) that gets the wheels of fortune turning for these two lovebirds perched on the tenuous branch of relationship rut.
Sophie and Jason make a collective decision to adopt Paw Paw, lame from a leg injury, in the unconscious hope that, like a surrogate child, he will fix everything. His recovery will take 30 days, and in those 30 days, Sophie and Jason will live each day as if it were their last, as July’s Christine Jesperson says in “Me and You.” In a few years, they’ll be 40, then 50 and after that, as Jason says, it’s just loose change. Not enough to do anything with.
So Jason unplugs the phone. Sophie shuts off the Internet. They abjure their unremarkable day jobs in pursuit of a fulfilling project. For Jason, this is dispassionate canvassing, and for Sophie, it’s desperately posting dance videos online. But their ambition runs dry after a day or two. Jason soon befriends an elderly man who sells him a hair-dryer, seeing more than just a little of himself in the old sweet loon.
Meanwhile, Sophie tries on a new life with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a middle-aged single dad who wears one of those gold chains and couldn’t be more different from Sophie or Jason. Their initial encounter is a frank sex scene. Two pairs of eyes askance, four hands and a feel copped. If you know how Miranda July works, you know this is when things begin to unravel, and when the film itself comes undone and into a strange mystery. And the rest is history. Or future. Whatever you want to call it.
At the center of the film is Sophie, who is like a Christine older and jaded and settled down for terminal good — a once doe-eyed optimist turned doleful caged bird. In the very excellent “Me and You,” July seemed to cosset her characters preciously despite their perversions and hang-ups. Yet here, July sets Sophie free, allowing her to fuck up without clemency because that’s honest and that’s what really happens to people in the world. Sophie’s, er, “choice” to see what life is like with another person, and the aches and pains accompanying that risky alternative, is heartbreaking and real, as if July is projecting everything we know and dream of onto the screen.
July the director, from beneath those modest ringlets and cough-drop eyes, always captures a sense of marvel at the world. Call it phenomenological. Yet she somehow, miraculously, solders that sense of whimsy to a darker, deeply serious vision of the unknown. What is the future? What if we took a wrong turn in getting there? These are all questions — the crisis of any creative spirit, no doubt — July takes up, punctuating with a trembling ellipsis rather than a period, despite the fatalist underpinnings of the film.
To say that Miranda July’s casting of herself is merely an act of vanity, the equivalent of a freshly minted creative writing MA publishing personal essays rather than something outside of themselves, is to miss the point. July reaches into her performance art background and pulls a miniature meta-universe out of her magic hat. Like Sophie, no doubt some kind of id, July is an artist seeking to situate her content into a form, an endeavor that proves oh-so slippery for anyone who attempts it in July-ville.
In some ways, “The Future” is more performance art piece than feature since July offers us little in the way of narrative skein. Instead she instructs us to read the emotional codes and cues of her characters. She also gives us a talking cat, an anthropomorphic t-shirt and the Moon as, literally, Father Time. Distortions of space-time and continuity errors abound, all well-oiled by Jon Brion’s melancholy, almost geometric score and July’s steely blue lens.
At bottom, “The Future” is expressionist, more concerned with sensation rather than sense. Sense is what we instinctively cling to in film, and in life, and when we let go of that, the world opens. Rarely do we witness a filmmaker so singlehandedly, and so brazenly, probing the depths of her own soul, just as she plumbs the possibilities of cinema.