Like an indie Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) couldn't be better matched. With their twin mops of curly black hair, marshmallow complexions, and dueling Apple laptops, they are hipster-love incarnate, full of self-doubt and unabashed quirkiness. At age 35, they are as clueless, stunted, and wistful as kids half their age. They are also, circa 2011, as American as apple pie: Never having to grow up is now a national birthright.
Holed up in a shoe box-sized Los Angeles apartment, Sophie and Jason spend their time steeped in the kind of anxiety and doubt that have defined insecure film creatives with a countercultural bent from Jean-Luc Godard to Woody Allen to Hal Hartley to Richard Linklater. Mortality is especially weighing heavily on the couple's mind, with the clock ticking toward middle age and the progress they had hoped to reach by their age still not achieved. That sense of stagnation is apparent in Sophie and Jason's affectless, flatline way of speaking, as if they couldn't summon up the energy for a raised eyebrow or an octave above a mumble. It is evident in their "careers" too. Jason works out of their apartment offering tech support over the phone. Sophie's job teaching dance to preschoolers is similarly joyless and detached.
Reluctant to consider too deeply the endless years that lie ahead, they instead mark time in the more manageable increment of one month. That is how long they have to wait until their injured cat Paw Paw, whose sickly sweet voiceover narrates the film, is released from the animal shelter where she waits expectantly for them. Like the talking Jack Russell terrier in this year's other indie quirk-fest Beginners (directed by July's husband Mike Mills), The Future inserts the goofy but somehow poignant device of a talking cat. Left too long to survive in the harsh world "outside," Paw Paw pines for Sophie and Jason and the domesticated pleasures of a soft bed, a ball of yarn to chase, and warm human laps.
The second film starring, written, and directed by performance artist and writer Miranda July, The Future is, more than anything, about time, that substance we seem to have so much of early in our lives but that begins to feel so fleeting later. Without children or real careers, Sophie and Jason are beginning to look around in an existential panic. It's hard to miss July's point: Life is passing them by.
In addition to its fixation on time's passage, The Future is focused on the need for real human connection in the age of the emotional and psychological buffer of the internet. In an incisive expression of the greater alienation the internet has wrought — in which people long to connect with random strangers — Sophie attempts to match a dance studio co-worker's 10,000 YouTube hits for a dance video. She vows to do "30 dances in 30 days," but as with so much in her life, she is stymied by uncertainty. In a comparable gesture of connection, Jason suddenly abandons tech support to sell trees door to door to combat global warming. He also develops a strange friendship with an elderly guy he meets via the internet, spending entire afternoons in the eccentric senior's company.
Sophie makes her own stab at engagement too. In a shocking departure from her loosey goosey, directionless attitude, she has a chance meeting with an older man that leads to an affair. In his tidy suburban home, Marshall (David Warshofsky) seems to represent everything Sophie and Jason are not. He's a businessman, a homeowner, a parent. Her sexual relationship with Marshall is both befuddling and compelling for showing the dimensions of the surreal that lurk even within apparently banal suburbia.
July was accused of being overly precious and hipster-adorable in her previous film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which dealt with similar themes of estrangement. Her work has often invited extreme reactions, both disgust and adoration. But in The Future, aging and the attendant anxiety it produces has transformed her from fey to grave. Despite a recent overcompensatory profile in The New York Times that heralded July as "the most honest, uninhibited filmmaker of our time," there is much to recommend in The Future, which has a gravitas and sadness suitable to our restless age.
And if you take away nothing else from The Future, it is almost certain you will be filled with an insatiable craving to save an animal from its horrible doomed prison in a "cagetorium." The film suggests we could all stand to be liberated from the cages that hold us.