By Eric Plaag
In writer and director Miranda July’s latest film The Future, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a couple who are stuck in a rut. Time, it seems, is not on their side. They are both in their late thirties, locked into careers that are floundering or purposeless, and worried about what happens when they turn 40 five years hence, because “after 50, the rest is just loose change.” Sophie, who teaches dance to children, seems broken when she sees her younger, prettier, and hipper colleagues posting new dance routines on a YouTube-like website, hoping to be discovered or at least generate a million hits. Confronted about when she’s going to do something worthwhile, she can only explain that she’s been “gearing up to do something really incredible after fifteen years.”
While Sophie and Jason are afflicted with these existential dilemmas of mid-life, time also tortures them in a micro sense. The film opens with the explanation that Sophie and Jason have rescued the film’s narrator, Paw Paw, an older stray cat suffering from renal failure and a broken front foot, but they must wait several weeks for the cat to heal before they can retrieve it from the humane society. Paw Paw is anxious to go with them, to escape “the darkness that is not appropriate to talk about” and finally realize her identity as “cat which is belonging to you.” Hanging over the entire enterprise is the clinic’s warning that Sophie and Jason must come to get Paw Paw on the day she is ready to go home, or the doctors will euthanize her. Paw Paw does not understand this. She only sees hope for the first time in a very, very long time, watching the clock hour by hour and “waiting for my real life to begin.” Sophie and Jason do not permit the possibility, either, even though Jason seems uncertain about having a cat at all, and Sophie seems unsure of a commitment that may very well stretch to as much as five years.
As one might expect from July, whose previous Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of the most fascinating and intricate narratives I’ve ever seen on screen, the uncertainties Sophie and Jason have about Paw Paw speak volumes about their fears about one another. They are the kind of couple who still quibble playfully over their superpowers, as when Sophie insists early in the film that she can turn on the faucet with her mind, and Jason swears that he can stop time. But they have become lost and do not yet know it. They have been together four years, which seems to Jason a very long time, even though they are unmarried and the adoption of Paw Paw seems to be a monumental decision akin to having a child. Jason has forgotten how to listen to Sophie, we learn, and Sophie has lost track of how to be truthful about the hard things. When Jason meets Joe (the late Joe Putterlik) through a Craigslist ad for a 1980s-era Conair hair dryer, Joe explains that his sixty-year marriage to his wife was “very hard at the beginning,” and that sometimes they did cruel things to one another. Jason objects, asserting that he and Sophie didn’t have troubles at the beginning. “Well,” Joe notes, “the problem is you’re just in the middle of the beginning.”
Sure enough, the trouble soon starts. In an effort to find his path in life, Jason quits his job, swearing that he will “be alert and…notice everything” as he seeks a sign about what he should do next, only to land in a situation far more miserable and demoralizing than the last. Sophie, meanwhile, immerses herself in a “30 dances in 30 days” video plan that she believes will finally push her out of her doldrums, even though she can’t bear the sight of herself on camera. Her misery leads to one of the small, circumstantial moments of irreversible, monumental choice that are common in July’s work and, indeed, in life. Within days, Sophie is sleeping with Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older man with a young daughter, someone whom the audience knows does not fit her at all, even though Sophie wants to believe otherwise. When the moment comes that Sophie must finally confront Jason about her choice, he begs her for just a moment to compose himself. She goes on anyway, and Jason does the only thing he can do to survive — he stops time.
What follows is a gorgeous but heartbreaking journey into magical realism that is pitch-perfect true to the otherworldly, floating confusion that we all experience when we walk in either Jason’s or Sophie’s shoes. As Jason tries to hold time back with his hand, the full moon begins to speak to him through the window. Jason begs for reassurance that he can let go: “If it’s going to work out, could you give me some sort of indication?” But the moon, personified by Joe’s voice, offers the same kind of empty solace we have all experienced at such times: “I don’t know anything. I’m just a rock in the sky.” I can think of few moments in film more emotionally haunting than watching Jason trying to restart time by using his hands to push the tides back into action. Likewise, Sophie’s agonizing, middle-of-the-night dance is at once both an immersion in self-revelation and an effort to hide her sins from all the world so that no one can see. Some may bristle at July’s quirkiness and the convoluted, sometimes circular ways that she gets at meaning and resolution through both her writing and direction, but her courage as a performance artist translates very well to screen. It sure would be nice if there were more folks making movies who were willing to so boldly place their vulnerabilities before us for consideration without ever dithering in self-absorption or wallowing in self-pity.
It would be unfair to say how it all works out or who gets hurt in the end. If you are going into this seeking the kind of uplifting, we-are-all-connected bliss of July’s Me and You, though, be warned now that this is a different movie with a different tone and a different set of outcomes, one that builds on the profound truths and startling enigmas of the earlier film in a much more mature and less gimmicky fashion. Some folks have been viciously critical about Paw Paw’s narration of this film, but without this frame and the weightiness of Paw Paw’s words, there would not be any sense of the rippling consequences that our choices and our selfishness have beyond the immediate and obvious. This, of course, is July’s point, that everything is connected, that the world is speaking to us in codes and signs, and that when we don’t know how to listen, we end up doing irreparable harm, even if it is unintentional. The Future is also about the maddening vagaries of time, both imagined and experienced, and how, as Paw Paw tells us, the only thing we can ever be certain of is that it “goes on and on and on.”
DVD, 5 out of 5 stars