Critics and cinephiles can attempt to lob Miranda July into a tidy box, claiming that her work is like this or that other (usually male) indie writer-director, but, really, there is no one else quite like her. Her work is what might best be described as reality-based magic realismhow else to explain a talking moon or a T-shirt with a mind of its own?while her characters tend to be quirky outcasts who wish they fit in better. July's feature debut, 2005's "Me and You and Everyone We Know
," was an acquired taste, equally loved and disdained depending on which person you talked to. For me, there was clear potential, charm and inspiration, but also a propensity for the unwieldy, unfocused, and decidedly amateurish. In other words, it never quite lived up to what it was going for. For her sophomore effort, "The Future," July has narrowed in her gaze but refused to soften the esoteric edges of her sensibilities. The picture is a heady conversation piece, nearly infinite in its number of big thematic ideas. For sheer ambition alone, it's worth seeing. Boy, does it have problems though, many of them outright frustrating because greatness seems so frequently within reach. July has matured with her second film, but has she learned from her past mistakes? It doesn't look like it.
Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a lived-in couple of four years who seem to be going through the motions until they decide to adopt a sick cat named Paw-Paw suffering from renal failure. They originally believe he will only survive another six months, but the vet informs them he could be around as long as five more years if they take good care of him. With a month left until they are allowed to pick him uphis hurt paw still needs to properly healSophie and Jason are faced with a tiny window of time before they figure they must say good-bye to their freedom. Furthermore, they experience the alarming realization that they haven't done anything of note with their lives thus far. At 35, they conclude that they'll be 40 in five years, which is the new 50. "Everything after that is just borrowed time," Jason says.
Determined to make the most of the next thirty days, Sophie and Jason temporarily cut off their Internet, quit their boring jobsshe is a children's dance instructor and he is a lowly phone technicianand set about to do something that means something. Sophie's dream project of putting up "30 Days of 30 Dances" on YouTube hits the sidelines when she seeks the extracurricular companionship of an older divorced dad Marshall (David Warshofsky). Jason hooks up with an environmental start-up and begins soliciting door-to-door the selling of trees that will be planted around the Los Angeles area. It is during his work that he meets lonely elderly widow Joe (Joe Putterlik), a man who was joyously married to his wife sixty-four years prior to her passing. It is through this unlikely friendship that Jason suddenly finds a renewed hope in all the possibilities of what comes next. What he can't imagine is that Sophie has already made a mistake that will seriously put their relationship to the test.
"The Future" is narrated by Paw-Paw, his wonderings and insights about the world around him both adorably naive and devastatingly wise. He doesn't understand timehe never had to before, living his entire life without an owner in the wildbut he does know what it's like to feel wanted from the moment he meets Sophie and Jason, and they pet him, and he purrs. The three of them have the ability to share a happy life together, but Sophie, in a pre-midlife crisis, can't quite grasp the notion of being with the same person for the rest of her life. She also doesn't know what she wants to do, and goes about screwing up everything that's going well in a misguided attempt at finding herself. As for Jason, he can't bear to face the fallout from what Sophie has done and tries to literally stop time so he won't have to. The rock in the sky is an okay companion to talk to, but he's not exactly ideal for giving advice.
As an actress, Miranda July has a warm face with inviting saucer eyes and a soul behind them. She's endlessly watchable and blessedly vulnerable. Maybe too vulnerable. As a filmmaker, she obviously has a lot on her mind, but not the full means with which to express it all. Her characters are abstracts in that they think about the existential topics we all doabout life, about death, about the drive for new experiences and the meaning of it allbut rarely show much in the way of external emotion. The viewer finally wishes Sophie and Jason would open up more to each other and, by effect, to patient viewers who deserve some finite form of catharsis. "The Future," for all of its emphatic, deeply felt individual momentsPaw-Paw is a heartbreaker, and so is a scene where Sophie does a private dance with her favorite shirt that's come to bring her homedoesn't have that last dramatic payoff it should. What does the future hold for Sophie and Jason? Why are they a couple meant to be together and worth fighting for (outside of the fact that they're both sad sacks)? And what's up with the out-there subplot involving Marshall's young daughter Gabriella's (Isabella Acres) obsession with burying herself in the backyard? So "The Future" falls victim to self-indulgence now and again, yes, but there is also an empathy July exhibits toward all her on-screen creations that cannot be faked. She understands Sophie and Jason better than they know themselves. It's just too bad she doesn't reveal the full breadth of who they are to her audience.