REVIEW: Miranda July Looks Into The Future and Sees a Talking Cat (Among Other Things)
A not-uncommon prologue: Miranda July drives me crazy, in the best and worst ways. Whether I'm watching her films, reading her stories, or taking a crack at her various, Web-documented performances pieces, I can't seem to get off the fence. I want to get off the fence. I want it so badly that attached to every primary response -- every swing across the fence and back again -- I experienced while watching The Future, the plangent follow-up to her 2005 feature debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was the secondary desire to shoulder-pin myself there, if only for clarity's sake. What seems most difficult to accept and so tremendously inconvenient to her appeal is that the talking cat -- or whatever other of her grindingly earnest narrative totems -- is not negotiable; it's not even regrettable. If you want Miranda July, you want the talking cat.
The talking moon, the creeping T-shirt, the declarative power over the time-space continuum -- you want it all. But you also want the exquisite vulnerabilities that blossom into themes under close attention, the ironist's touch so subtle it floods the screen, the daring to turn the sadnesses of ordinary life into experimental fairy tales, as if no one told July that the cultural waters for swimmers of that particular stroke are polluted this season. The first step to clarity for those who share my feelings is accepting that this is not a fight with Miranda July -- she does not share your concerns about unseemly precocity and the word "twee." It's a matter of getting out of the way of your own sleek new set of 21st-century reflexes -- the junky gender and culture codes we use to determine the aesthetic purity of our young artists -- and accepting her work on its own terms. Which, I admit, presents every suggestion of being boggled by those same codes. I wouldn't suggest such a heroic maneuver if I didn't think she was owed a fair shot. I wouldn't be inclined myself if The Future weren't such a provocative example of a filmmaker in complete control of her interests and her talents.
July plays Sophie, a modern dance teacher for tots who lives with her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater), a tech support phone jockey, in an ordinary Los Angeles apartment. The two share custody of a King Arthur haircut and a cat -- the latter, an abused animal named Paw-Paw, must spend 30 days recovering in a shelter before Sophie and Jason can take her home. In the wake of adopting Paw-Paw, the couple descend into a panic about responsibility and their age -- 35, which means 5 years to 40, which is practically 50, and after that it's "just loose change. Not enough to get anything you want." To this July's Sophie adds things like, "I've been gearing up to do something incredible for 15 years." Another ineffectual avatar created by a woman of considerable ambition: Why? I suppose one's sense of accomplishment is relative, but July has said she was largely inspired by her less successful female friends who, upon reaching their mid-30s without fame and fortune, have felt pressure to either do "something incredible," or just give up and have a baby.
The couple vow to break out individually -- for Sophie the odyssey starts with YouTube and a series of dances that she hopes will capture the world's attention. But she is paralyzed by the pressure, just as Jason is quickly demoralized by his door-to-door charity work. The payoff for turning to face the world seems dispiritingly thin, and inertia, previously held in check by routine and companionship, steps in to make itself plain. Sophie responds by reaching out for a different kind of comfort, and winds up bent over the sofa of a suburban single dad (David Warshofsky). July's gift for the dread and disconnection of modern life is best expressed when she deals with sex: The ordinary longings of Sophie's first encounter with lonely dad Marshall are spotlighted and sustained such that they transfigure into something raw and subversive before our eyes.
July is more of a presence than an actress, or even a believable persona. Onscreen she registers chiefly as a conceptual means to her ends as a filmmaker, an ingenuous avatar with visible strings. It is in her interactions with Marshall, paradoxically, as her character tests the fit of a new identity, that Sophie fills the screen as a character. "If you watched me all the time," Sophie muses after Marshall pledges his protection, "I wouldn't have to do anything." The mixture of relief and horror running under that realization has a ring of sadness and truth that only intensifies as the story begins to lift away into the realm of magic realism.
July is also more attuned to the insufferability of her shiftless couple than their persistent cuteness suggests. Throwaway lines, like Sophie asking Jason to trash her junk mail after he solicits money to plant a small tree, or Jason exulting to Sophie, who has just betrayed him, about "noticing everything" with newly revived senses, cut some of the wistful sentiment with a self-aware edge. The doomed Paw-Paw prattles on, sometimes dreaming of the future, sometimes philosophizing about the feline condition; a harvest moon asks for help while the central couple are suspended in a misery of indecision about themselves and each other; and belongings are sold, sought, stretched, and belonged for by their owners. The notion of coming to a sense of one's self as an adult in the absence of traditional markers converges on a meaningful embrace of the fact that all things fall away in time -- the only certain truth the future holds for Sophie and Jason and any of us.