Calling Planet Earth
by Farihah Zaman
Dir. Miranda July, U.S., Roadside Attractions
When discussing Miranda Julyâ€™s second feature film, The Future, many writers have fixated on the relationship between the artistâ€™s New Age-y pixie persona and her art, weighing in on how twee and precious (words almost guaranteed to be paired with the filmmakerâ€™s name) her latest effort is. Relevant, perhaps, but not entirely fair to her work, which has matured significantly over time. The Future has combined what July is most frequently praised forâ€”unflagging sincerity and an uncanny ear for the idiosyncrasies of human vulnerability, yearning, and existential struggleâ€”as well as what she is most infamously criticized for: that same unrelenting sincerity, which has a tendency to suffocate the material. The result is a film that is both deeply affecting and kind of annoying. However, July seems to have learned to harness the exasperating, overly stylized elements of her filmmaking, such that in this case theyâ€™ve become integral to the filmâ€™s success in capturing the realities of love and loss.
Thirty-something L.A. couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater, known to many a New Yorker from Shakespeare in the Park, but whose foppish good looks Iâ€™ve long admired on reruns of the tonally strange, oddly creepy sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine) are not just soul mates, but â€śsoul twinsâ€ť (to borrow a phrase I once heard from a fortune teller). They are alike not only in their matching curly mop-top hair and awkward, lanky bodies but also in the way they seem nauseatingly in sync with one anotherâ€™s quirks; at the same time they are sadly capable of magnifying each otherâ€™s flaws, which include fear and inertia. The two are jolted out of their comfortable routine when they agree to adopt a sick stray cat they name Paw Paw. Waiting at the animal shelter for the couple to pick her up after their self-imposed timetable of 30 days, Paw Paw becomes the filmâ€™s narrator (through Julyâ€™s slightly manipulated voice) and provides gentle philosophical guidance throughout the story. As the clock ticks and the impending responsibility dawns on them, they each decide to make a change in order to experience life before hurtling irrevocably towards age fifty and the seeming abyss beyond.
The Future is both like and unlike Julyâ€™s previous body of work, which includes articles, novels, multimedia online projects, the Camera dâ€™orâ€“winning film Me and You and Everyone We Know, and the performance art pieces that launched her career. Questions of intimacy, desire, and connection run through almost all her work, and July has always employed the same droll, stuttering comic timing and playful approach to both structure and storytelling. However, The Future sees July back away from the consistent comic relief of her earlier work in favor of relatable, even cringe-worthy moments of recognition, such as when Sophie peering into a mirror and wishing she was â€śjust one notch prettierâ€ť so she wouldnâ€™t have to â€śmake a case with each new person.â€ť With this film, she also veers more deeply into fantastical territory, allowing Jason to meet his future self through an ad in the Penny Saver, giving him the ability to stop time and consult the moon when Sophie is on the verge of leaving him, outfitting Sophie with a ratty old security T-shirt that literally follows her when she tries to escape her life for a seemingly safer one with a single dad in the suburbs. These elements sound the most â€śtweeâ€ť of all on paper, but are executed with such sweetness and simplicity that they are often as touching as the more self-consciously constructed â€śnormalâ€ť moments.
July here also takes a different turn in her exploration of sex; in her first feature her interest in sexuality focused more on coming-of-age and the childlike innocence that desire can sometimes exude, taking taboo topics such as a preadolescentâ€™s online relationship with a grownup art dealer or a middle aged manâ€™s obsession with two neighborhood teenage girls, and peeling away expectations of salaciousness. July is still disarmingly frank about sex, and no longer trying to declaw it for the benefit of the audienceâ€™s comfort; the filmâ€™s first major sex scene shows desire overcoming Sophie in the presence of single dad Marshall (David Warshofsky); she responds by walking over to the couch, leaning over, and lightly humping it until he unceremoniously returns with a condom. The scene is funny, slightly crude, but believable, proving that awkward is not the same as asexual. The Future is far more adult than her previous featureâ€”in multiple senses of the word, from the way it engages with sex, to the restriction of its characters to a handful of intertwined people in various stages of life, to the expansion of Julyâ€™s thematic palette to include grief and death, and its darker, more ambiguous outlook on life. Me and You and Everyone We Know flirts with ideas of depression, but is ultimately about hope and redemption, whereas this film depicts a time in life when possibilities begin to wither rather than bloom, somebody always gets hurt, and the future is surely uncertain.
Julyâ€™s meticulous direction and deliberate line delivery (she speaks in a slow monotone) can sometimes feel stifling, but this approach works perfectly for a film about feeling hemmed in by narrowing choices and stuck in a flailing romance. What makes The Future so surprisingly satisfying despite the occasional cloying moment is the filmmakerâ€™s willingness to admit that everyone has moments when they are annoying or scared or pathetic, especially while in relationships. She is also brave enough to buck the current trend of literal realism among young American filmmakers like Lena Dunham or Joe Swanberg; the film is a refreshing counterpoint to the mumblecore philosophy that a relentlessly straightforward and hyperrealistic recreation of the quotidian is the best way to access the truth of daily life. Here, there are no scenes about buying bread or attending mediocre partiesâ€”July proves that, sometimes, extreme subjectivity and magical realism can express an accurate a portrayal of how life really works.