Is there such thing as a sincerely calculated naïveté? Or put another way, does Miranda July have any idea of how annoying she is?
On the basis of The Future, writer/filmmaker/performance artist July’s second feature, I’d guess that she must. A fabricator of her own screen image, July—the high priestess of quirk—has a lineage that can be traced back to art-world pop star Laurie Anderson to muscular mind-tripper Yvonne Rainer to the original psychodramatist, Maya Deren. Even more than Anderson, July is an unabashed cutie-pie, seemingly determined to play the eternal permanently precocious ingénue. At the same time, The Future hints at a degree of ironic self-awareness on the part of the 37-year-old artist unimaginable in Deren, Rainer, and even Anderson.
One minute into The Future, an arch, scratchy little voice attributed to Paw Paw the cat, but unmistakably belonging to the filmmaker, poses the question, “Have you ever been outside?” Seldom have I felt so directly addressed. The urge to bolt the screening room was overwhelming. July’s first feature, the irritating yet hard-to-hate 2005 Camera d’Or winner Me and You and Everyone We Know, began in similar fashion and, among other things, concerned a goofy, earnest video artist (July) in romantic pursuit of a divorced shoe salesman. The Future revisits a similar situation from a somewhat different perspective.
Jason (Hamish Linklater, known to Shakespeare in the Park patrons for some memorable clowning) and Sophie (July), a somewhat depressed, marginally droll, eminently swattable couple of early thirtysomethings, tiff and riff around their Los Angeles apartment, feasting on minor misunderstandings and imagining their dotage. A wide-eyed space child with a pale, Pre-Raphaelite quality, Sophie teaches modern dance to three-year-olds. This wistful, tentative, somewhat wilted flower is not without her mystery: Is she an intentionally comic character? Is her morning salutation (“Hi, person”) meant to be charming? Jason, who does computer-tech support from home, has a bird’s-nest hairdo and an even more frightened look on his face. More than symbiotic, they’re virtual twins who have resolved to change their life together by adopting a cat—in fact, a problem cat with a questionable future.
Paw Paw will require total care. The expectant couple will have to wait a month for her and, if they change their mind, the kitty will be put down. In preparation for Paw Paw, Sophie and Jason quit their jobs. She resolves to create a new dance to post on YouTube every day; he resolves to help save the planet, going door to door soliciting money for the Greenpeace-like Tree by Tree. (They also decide to terminate their Internet connection, which triggers a flurry of last-minute Googling and complicates Sophie’s project.) Meanwhile, we are privy to grateful Paw Paw’s consciousness—she’s patiently waiting and even counting the days.
The Future is transparently a movie about having a child, as well as about being one. Thwarted in her dance-a-day project, Sophie awkwardly seduces a 50-ish single dad. Marshall (David Warshofsky) is even clumsier than Jason and no less dull, but at least he’s a “man,” with a home in the Valley and a six-year-old daughter named Gabriella. Sophie seems to be enjoying her childlike affair—she’s slightly more animated, and somewhat better-looking when with Marshall. She is even able to establish a fragile connection with Gabriella, who has busied herself digging a grave in the backyard. (Jason, meanwhile, quits his idealistic new job in despair and plaintive Paw Paw, still dreaming of her new life, imagines the letter she would write to her prospective owners—if she could write.)
The movie’s final act is complicated by a metaphoric toy chest of New Age tropes (a Sophie doppelgänger in the form of an enchanted T-shirt; an elderly, advice-giving man in the moon), as well as sundry parallel worlds, alternate lives, and second personalities. July is something of a magician, and somewhere amid the inability to stop time, the finality of unborn children, the failure to protect posterity, the end of romantic love, the limitations of memory, the routine of carelessness, and the futility of expectations, Sophie’s (or is it July’s?) coy narcissism becomes a criticism of itself, and her “sadness” turns into something truly sad. In short, I have seen The Future and it’s heartbreaking.