When you first hear about Miranda July's new movie, The Future, you probably think it's a twee magical romp.
The whole movie is narrated by an adorable shelter cat with an injured paw, named Paw-Paw. The indefensibly good-looking main characters are having a mopey, totally overblown early midlife crisis. They do things like having long conversations with the Moon and form an adversarial relationship with time itself. It all sounds very cutesy.
But in fact, The Future is horrendously, almost unbearably, depressing. And that's a wonderful thing.
Beware: there are spoilers below. We also have some clips from the movie that you might not have seen.
When we interviewed Miranda July a while back, we talked to her about the fact that The Future is perhaps the bleakest, most nihilistic work of magical realism we've ever seen. Where magical, fanciful elements come into her movie, they only serve to make the characters' world more claustrophobic, more lonesome, and her characters' "superpowers" only make them more powerless.
Actually, it's left ambiguous as to whether magical or paranormal stuff is happening in The Future. It could all just be a fancy set of metaphors — but if you go with that reading, then the movie is a lot poorer for it, and loses a lot of its power as a result.
So in The Future, we follow a 35-year-old couple called Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) who are about to adopt Paw-Paw, the injured cat. It's a lot of responsibility, if you happen to be an underachieving slacker whose biggest accomplishment in life is not drowning in the shower. And if they take good care of Paw-Paw, then she could live another five years — by which time they'll be forty. In one of the movie's many verbal timeslips, they reason that forty is almost fifty. And fifty is almost dead. They only have one month before they adopt Paw-Paw, which gives them just one month to do something with themselves before they're tied down.
In the clip at left, Sophie tries to get more serious about dancing, by making Youtube videos of herself, but her jerky choreographies can't really compete with the sexy, gyrating dance videos one of her coworkers posts.
The first half of this movie is almost unbearable. Sophie and Jason are two of the most unlikable protagonists ever brought to the screen, and their jumped-up midlife crisis is both contrived and annoying. The movie drags along as Sophie and Jason fumble for something to give meaning to their largely meaningless lives. There are some funny moments, and some moments of extreme cleverness or playfulness, but by the halfway mark the movie starts to feel like a terrible vortex of hipster self-obsession.
And then the second half of the film is so brilliant, you retroactively love the first half for setting it all up.
Sophie and Jason are already totally isolated and empty at the start of the film — neither of them seems to have any friends, for example. Their only meaningful bond is with each other, but that bond frays over the course of the movie as they go out and encounter other people who are more authentic and less ironic than they are.
Paw-Paw the cat, as the film's narrator, also helps to cement the themes of wildness and venturing into the unknown — as Sophie and Jason are getting ready to leave their comfortable lives for an adventure, Paw-Paw is steeling herself to become a domesticated animal, someone's property. Paw-Paw understands things about the world "outside," the world where anything can happen and predators abound, that Sophie and Jason don't quite understand. Sophie, in particular, is desperate to be seen by people — but Paw-Paw understands that when you're "outside," it's best to avoid being seen at all.
The looming adoption of Paw-Paw comes to symbolize everything Sophie and Jason are afraid of, including being tied down permanently and admitting to their own irrevocable mediocrity. But actually, you come to realize that having a damn cat to look after could be the best thing that could ever happen to these two, who need something to care about besides themselves. And that's sort of the central paradox of the film — they think that the only way they can be significant is to find themselves, before they have to take on this new domestic responsibility. But actually, just caring for another being who depends on them will, by its very nature, make Sophie and Jason into more meaningful, important people in the ways that actually count.
The more off the reservation Sophie and Jason go, the more interesting the film becomes. Without giving too much away, Sophie makes some dreadful mistakes in the second half of the movie, which ultimately show her that she had a lot more to lose than she thought she did. "I just want to tell you that I'm really wild," she insists at one point. And that's where the movie becomes a lot more beautiful and fascinating — Sophie falls into a situation that's totally wrong for her, and the movie's cruelty toward her starts to resemble Todd Solondz at his best. Sophie goes from being disaffected but anchored to being a lost soul, and it's fascinating to watch.
And honestly, the sequence where Jason deals with the knowledge of what Sophie's done makes the whole movie worthwhile by itself. It's the most magical, fanciful part of the movie, and it feels as though you're moving into a fantasy world in which the Moon is an unhelpful confidant and the elements are personified. The whole thing leads to some of the most powerful, mystical, sad moments I've seen on screen in ages.
And suddenly, all of the movie's concerns about time — which were what launched Sophie and Jason into their crisis in the first place — become literalized. Instead of just being a thing that can subjectively get away with you — like when 40 years old suddenly becomes 50 years old — time is an element that can be dammed, or channeled, just like a river. But the ability to control the flow of time only leaves Jason more trapped than he was before, because time still only goes in one direction.
The clip at left comes from late in the film, in a fantasy sequence where Sophie meets two of her old friends that she's lost touch with. They suddenly go from being pregnant to having babies, and then the babies are grown up and the women are dead. This is clearly just happening in Sophie's head — but some of the other stuff that happens with time in the movie appears to be more literally "happening," especially the stuff with Jason.
There's a long tradition in storytelling of people getting lost on purpose, and then realizing that they can't get un-lost. The Future takes this already-dark tradition and pushes it in an even more bleak direction. And along the way, the movie manages to pose some fascinating questions about our relationship to time and our relationships with the wild.