The Future (dir. Miranda July, 2011)

In The Future, Miranda July’s excellent and strangely underrated sophomore effort, a couple deals with what could be called a collective pre-mid-life crisis. Too young to be impulsively purchasing Porsches but old enough to be disappointed in a once gleaming, now dulled belief in personal specialness, Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater) reticently shuffle through the halfway stretch of their 30s, idling about their artfully disheveled apartment in between (and during) daily bouts of unrewarding work. It’s not that Sophie and Jason, with their interchangeable mops of deep brown curls, lanky limbs and quietly blinking eyes, aren’t ambitious or creative – just paralyzed by the large-looming prospect of failure, and worse, the societally specified point at which their ambitions and creativity should be paying off. To them, the future is something so brimming with quickly slipping possibility that it turns the present into a stultifying swamp.

Sophie and Jason have decided to adopt aging stray cat Paw-Paw and give it a loving home for its final months of life. When the couple are benignly informed that, with proper care, their feline friend could live up to five years, the adoption date becomes less a point of excitement and more one of anxiety, a glaring red marker on the calendar that seems to signal the beginning of the end of something. The thirty days until Paw-Paw’s arrival amusingly transform into a projected and extended Bucket List of sorts, a time for the couple to quit their jobs, for Jason to befriend an elderly eccentric who sells him a hairdryer, and for Sophie to furtively cancel their home internet subscription in the hope that its absence will yield more productivity. (She devises a plan, as doomed as any New Year’s resolution, to choreograph and record one interpretive dance each day for the  month leading up to the kitty’s homecoming.)

In a less interesting film, the internet would prove completely culpable, the LED-glowing devil that transforms imaginative people into short attention spans. But, as we see in an elegantly composed medium shot of Sophie leaning against a wall as sparse as her inspiration, attempting to scare herself into prolificity (“If you don’t start at the count of three, I’m never talking to you again!”), the daunting pressure of committing to a personal project will rear its head in one way or another. Without the internet, Sophie creates another distraction for herself in the form of an affair with the kind-faced and banally kinky Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older single father whose artwork Jason bought at the local community center.

Yet this is at once an apt and overly bleak account of a film illuminated by intelligently weird humor and bizarrely cosmic wonder, eerily arresting images and a narrating cat with the soul of a poet. As in July’s radiant first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future seemingly catapults toward the sort of bottled tweeness and marketable quirk that often plagues American indie films, and then sticks its landing deftly, finely off-center from that dire goal, defying expectations and offering something freshly unusual and startlingly nuanced. As leads, July and Linklater make for a pared-down team, maybe best described as two confused minus symbols equaling a subtle, affective positive. While John Hawks’ vivid presence opposite July is certainly missed from Me and You, in a film such as The Future, where anti-presence is such a seeping, creeping issue, July’s soft, searching voice and Linklater’s affably blank demeanor work.

July’s formal intuitions have upped since Me and You, and The Future offers an array of surprising (and surprisingly edgy) visuals, most notably in the film’s second act when Sophie and Jason’s figurative paralysis begins to take on literal dimensions. In the midst of a particularly distraught late-night confrontation with Sophie, Jason learns something incredible about himself. To specify would be to give too much away, but Jason’s self-discovery yields some fantastic images, including a neighbor frozen at her window, holding her silver, Rapunzel-like hair motionless, and views of ghostly Los Angeles streets and beaches in a state of nocturnal, mime-like pause. Later comes a beautifully disturbing shot of a little girl who, in a morbid take on kiddie camping, has buried herself neck-high in the backyard, and a boldly expressive sequence in which July shows off her performance art chops, having Sophie climb inside an oversized t-shirt and letting it swallow her whole. The characters in this film stop moving, sink into things and become engulfed, and it’s not accidental.

Echoing these strange and lonely nighttime occurrences is Paw-Paw’s narration, which, in a poetic and plaintive way, tells us of her (his?) wildness at heart, desire to belong and fear of the day’s dark hours. Though we see Paw-Paw at one point in live cat form, the sage kitty mostly appears as a pair of furry puppet paws, one bandaged and one free, and is voiced by July in her best adorable-ancient-feline brogue. What becomes of Paw-Paw is sad and resoundingly inevitable, and re-roots The Future in its celestial wistfulness while implicating Sophie and Jason as gentle, careless villains. In the film’s final moments, a luminous shot of a window overwhelmed with bright white light gives way to a scene in the couple’s apartment, a space that is familiar but now changed. Perhaps this is what the future looks like, that moment beyond the blinding uncertainty: recognizable, different, filled with possibility.