The Future

Dir: Miranda July

Rating: 4.7/5.0

Roadside Attractions

91 Minutes

Miranda July understands time. Her characters play around with it; obsess over it; attempt sometimes to bend it to their exuberant will. She knows how pliable it can be, how plastic – as in that wonderful scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) where John Hawkes and July’s characters compress an entire lifetime of love and regret and heartache into the span of a few blocks’ walk; or in the opening scene from that same film where Hawkes risks everything on one desperate gamble, setting torch to his hand in a mad attempt to turn back the fall of time and undo the sadness of his life. And of course by the end of that starry-eyed movie a preschool boy will command the reigns of time, tapping out against a metallic lamppost the sun’s steady and persistent march across the sky. That post reappears six years later in The Future, July’s fantastic follow-up to her indelible debut, a film that once again proves how intimately July understands the nature of time.

For the most part time is a burden in The Future, something dire to be overcome by souls less “twee” than twisted, characters bent nearly double by the solid and insistent weight of it. For Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater), time is embodied, given life in the form of a crippled cat named Paw-Paw, whom the couple is meant to adopt in a month. Looking more like twins than lovers, Jason and Sophie have grown comfortable to the point of catatonia with one another, settling into a normalized routine of lower-middle class urban striving. And so when they learn that Paw-Paw might linger on for another five years or more, rather than the six or so months they’d originally scheduled, the two are thrown into a frenzied froth of activity. For as Jason reasons, if they’re 35 now, in five years they’ll be 40, and from then on there’ll be nothing left but loose change: “not quite enough to get anything you really want,” as he resignedly puts it. Suddenly aware of their own mortality like never before, Sophie and Jason (who, and this can’t be stressed enough, look incredibly alike), convene their journey from stasis to change and beyond. By the end of the film they have reached a more precarious plane of stasis, pregnant with the possibilities of some new thing being born.

Like July and Hawkes collapsing a lifetime of love into a stroll, Sophie and Jason attempt to liberate multiple decades of unrealized potential all in a 30-day sprint of Internet-free insanity. Sophie, who works as a children’s dance instructor, struggles to complete her long-in-the-planning “30 Days, 30 Dances” YouTube project to nil effect. Jason takes a more laissez faire approach, following the random path of happenstance until he finds himself working a job he doesn’t like (selling trees door-to-door) and visiting the home of an elderly gentleman named Joe (Joe Putterlink), who will come to serve as his inmost voice of conscience during one epically dark night of the soul.

And through it all, Paw-Paw patiently waits. Much has been made of this aspect to the story, so let’s just air it out: it is 100% true that there is a talking cat in this motion picture. Paw-Paw (voiced by an electronically-modulated July), delivers a series of heartbreaking monologues from her cage, brief and poetic fragments about the darkness and the light; about the feeling of having waited so long to be held that each successive moment brings with it an eternity of torture. While some might sight this aspect of the film as reason enough for its wholesale rejection, to me it’s an absolutely essential ingredient to the movie’s potent stew of ideas. Far from being an ironic hipster’s arty pose or some self-indulgent quirk, there is a talking cat in The Future simply because there definitively has to be a talking cat in The Future. It is an incredibly brave maneuver on the part of July that will pay off handsomely if you’ll let it.

A soliloquizing feline is not the only magical aspect to the film: time bends and shifts around the screen in surprising ways. Before Sophie can confess her affair with a single dad across town (David Warshofsky), Jason literally freezes time, removing himself entirely from reality’s equation – the perfect avoidance strategy. The Universe (and the film) splits neatly in two at this juncture, bifurcating the space/time continuum cleanly down its center crease. In one world Sophie moves in with her lover and his young daughter (Isabella Acres). Uncomfortable in her new scrambled-for future, Sophie’s past resists erasure. Ambushing her in the form of a favorite t-shirt’s crosstown journey to find its lost owner, it shows up on her doorstep like an abandoned pet, a yellow cotton garment of guilt. Meanwhile, Sophie Two kneels frozen on the floor of her old apartment, Jason’s frightened palm upon her brow. Afraid to lift it lest the spell be broken, Jason is informed by his friend the Moon (a transmogrified Joe) that while he sits here dithering, weeks have gone by and Sophie has long since left him.

Jason finally succumbs to the inevitable. As he wanders the streets of the still-frozen world, he passes by the lamppost that little Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) had tapped his magic quarter against in Me and You and Everyone We Know, causing the sun to speed across the sky. Because of his youth, because of his sheer unquenchable certitude, Robby was able to gleefully play with the substance of time. Jason is older, however – his power over time comes in a panicked moment, and what is accomplished unthinkingly is not soon undone. The inclusion of the lamppost in both films is a subtle way to link the elements of July’s oeuvre. It’s also an effective means of comparison between two differing attitudes towards life’s bitter mysteries; a potent little detail for those who spot it.

Visually, the film is awash in a pointillist’s array of sharply-delineated detail. From the accumulated layer of dust that coats the couple’s glass table to the broken handle of their plastic laundry basket, every minutest atom of the film has the feeling of well-thought-out consideration. If July has any flaw as a filmmaker it is surely this – her two features to date have tended to be over-determined, betraying the nervous presence of a director perhaps still unsure of how to let her films freely breathe.

But this is a small complaint. One of Miranda July’s great strengths as a filmmaker is that she really isn’t one. July is an artist who blurs all boundaries, having excelled in multiple disciplines, from performance art to web design to an award-winning collection of stories. While Me and You and Everyone We Know was a nearly sui generis affair, betraying little in the way of cinematic influence, The Future is clearly under the sway of the great Charlie Kauffman, whose script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) heavily informs the love story between Sophie and Jason. But the Kaufman work that The Future most closely resembles is Synecdoche, NY (2008), Kaufman’s brilliant directorial debut. Both films share as their central concern time’s traumatic passage and the protagonists in both suddenly find themselves washed up against the future, unsure of how and why their lives have disappeared.

The Future is a melancholy film, but it’s an honest one. It builds upon the insights into time that July explored in her last film, adding to the mixture a sobering and seemingly hard-won maturity. If you can resist the temptation to preemptively dismiss it, you too will find yourself devastated by the warbling voice of a talking cat.

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