By Patrick Z. McGavin
Sundance Film fest 2011 (Premieres)–Five years after her delicate and gracefully observed debut film “Me and You and Everyone We Know” revealed a thoughtfully engaging new voice, Miranda July expands her range and emotional subtlety with the intriguing and sharply realized follow up, “The Future.”
The new film collates her different talents and sensibilities in interesting ways. In the interim between her two films, July has worked in video installation and most significantly, writing short fiction. Her story collection, “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” refined her sensibility and help sharpen her trenchant and colorful feel for mood, tone and indirection.
As the title suggests, “The Future” is coolly ambiguous and colored by different impulses and references encompassing science fiction, magic realism, time travel and the transmogrification of the soul. “Have you ever been outside,” is the opening line of the movie, spoken by the unorthodox narrator, a feline called Paw Paw (voiced by July).
The cat is the connective tissue of the loose limbed story reflecting the quiet desperation of the movie’s central couple, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They live in a cramped Los Angeles apartment. He’s a computer tech specialist; she’s a dance instructor for young children. After four years together, the relationship is not exactly in a free fall though deadened by a sideways inertia.
Both are torpid and cut off emotionally and given to petty jealousies (in a sharp and telling note, July’s character is obsessed by the viral popularity of a colleague’s YouTube video clip). Their adoption of the cat is meant as a signal of their increased responsibilities and selflessness. Medical complications require that the cat remain in specialized care, and the couple are tasked to return in a month’s time.
Liberated at the thought of 30 days of utter freedom, Sophie convinces the initially reluctant Jason to strip away the excesses and the unnecessary. She unplugs the Internet and inspires Jason into giving up his dead-end job. Sophie then announces a new mission of creating 30 different dances in the 30 days, while Jason gets involved in a local green movement.
July is especially convincing at the personal impasses and acute disappointment of lingering failure. The subtlety emerges in the forlorn and sidelong passages, like the way a fallen portrait on the wall reveals a phone number. She is drawn to the ineffable, the slippery and uncontrollable. One such moment leads to a very impulsive act, a phone that ignites an affair with Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older single father of a precocious adolescent daughter (Isabelle Acres).
He’s an entrepreneur and Sophie is drawn to his strength and quiet competence. July intriguingly and quixotically fractures all of that. Rather than drawn in closer to the question of the triangle, July spins the work further and further out of balance.
The remainder of the story shifts between alternate realities that are possibly dreams, imaginings, or Jason’s projection of her new life, which beautifully invoke Jacques Rivette’s modernist classic, “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” The Rivette reference seems especially apt in the peculiar and gorgeous way July suggests Jason and Sophie have merged and possibly exchanged identities.
As a format, video tends personalize the most intimate of details. Even more so than her first feature, “The Future” is an uncanny self-portrait. July mocks her own inability to think or create conventional art (like Sophie’s stunningly unsuccessful attempt to produce her own YouTube clip). Her fearlessness is inseparable from her tender awkwardness.
The resonance of “Me and You” developed out of the terrific ensemble (July showed an especially strong touch with teenagers). The new film marks a tremendous improvement stylistically and visually. Shot by Nikolai von Graevenitz, the movie is both supple and nimble. The imagery is filled with suggestions of entrapment and defeat.
July also remains alert to new ideas, such as a terrific scene of the lives of her two best female friends fast forward directly in front of her. Their settled and accomplished lives present a stark contrast to her own wanderings and confusion. Even though she is very much in control, July does not monopolize the movie. She is generous with the other actors, especially some beautiful vignettes about Jason’s developing friendship with an older widower (the late Joe Putterlik).
As accomplished as “The Future” is, the movie is not to all tastes. The precociousness gets a bit thick at times. Even so, the new film is often so breathless and quietly wonderful that one hopes the separation between her second and third feature are not nearly so long.