Sophie’s friend tells her that a gold chain around a man’s neck is a sign that he’s “ready to fuck.” Now, there is the type of woman who knows this, and there is the type of woman who thinks that a chain is simply a piece of jewelry. Sophie responds that she’s always thought of herself “as one of those kinds of women,” the ones who think a chain is just a chain. Armed with this new information, Sophie feels herself becoming the kind of person who knows the real, charged meaning of a chain.
Writer-director Miranda July’s second feature, The Future, uses scenes both blunt and subtle like this one to examine desire, sexuality and the meaning of symbols in our everyday lives. With this new film, I felt myself becoming the kind of person who likes Miranda July. (Perhaps willfully, I’ve forgotten most of her debut feature Me and You and Everyone We Know, but I plan on revisiting it.)
The Future follows Sophie and Jason (July and Hamish Linklater, both of them sincere and focused), a couple in their mid-30s emerging from an agonizingly believable extended adolescence. July explores the yearnings of her characters and their tentative, unexpected hopes. In what might be either an expression of her latent fear of abandonment or her repressed urge to flee Jason, Sophie is having some trouble reading desires. She twice thinks Jason is going away when he’s not: once as he simply shifts on the couch, later when he doesn’t quite leave for work. In another delicate scene, Sophie has a halting phone conversation with a stranger in an attempt to figure out whether she and the stranger are neighbors, without divulging their addresses. She doesn’t seem to know why she wants to know this, but she doesn’t tamp down the impulse. Opposing forces within one personality drive the action: Sophie’s shyness is placed in opposition to her off-kilter desires, and she and Jason feel anxious about losing Internet access, even though they can’t think of anything they want to look up before it’s disconnected.
July has a great knack for playing out a simple idea with an unexpected, humorous turn that rounds into what could be a self-contained skit. July’s filmmaking, both structurally and thematically, risks coming across as scattered and cloying, and it will surely strike some viewers that way. The Future has a talking moon, an occasional voice-over from a cat, YouTube dance numbers and the fetishization of vintage objects like ’80s-era hair dryers, corduroy couches and porcelain hippos. For all that, The Future is not an exercise in forced idiosyncrasy or an ambiguous aesthetic gesture but a fully realized work with clear ideas and an integrated plot. The thing with the cat would work just fine if July simply took out the squeaky voice-over.
Sophie and Jason are going to adopt a cat, but they have to wait a month to pick it up. The Future takes place within that month. Reconfigure that sentence slightly (the future takes place within a month) and you get one way to view the title, the first of many gestures made toward July’s central topic: the passing of time and how it affects us. Discussions of time contradict each other, sometimes within the same scene: Sophie and Jason figure they’ll have the cat for about five years, at which point they’ll be 40, which is pretty much 50, after which life is just “loose change.” But a mere month, they reason counterintuitively, is all the time in the world, time to do plenty before the scary brevity of five years sets in.
How long is long? If you love someone, when are you no longer at the beginning of the relationship? If time stops for someone, does it continue for others? That last question is the most abstract, but it’s the one July tackles most directly. Late in the film (spoilers follow) time stops for Jason as it somehow continues for Sophie, who has acted on her desire for a life without Jason. In an unsettling, Mulholland Dr.-like scene, Sophie’s tentative personality creeps over her in the form of an oversized shirt, and she slowly, blindly dances around a crisp, angular room in her new home. These things are happening even as Sophie is simultaneously frozen in her other, shabbier home with Jason, and it appears that she is getting a look at an alternate future. Jason finds himself alone without having lived through the breakup, only to get Sophie back in what is for him the same day as the one in which she left.
July’s film opens by touching on the idea of time stoppage, in a conversation that masquerades as a charming quirk. But by the end, it’s clear that she is less concerned with the likeability of her film’s exterior than she is with the time that passes within it: how we manipulate it and perceive it, how it affects us and how we interpret its meaning. It’s trickier to grapple with these themes than to resort to allegations of July’s preciousness, a frivolous accusation to level at a serious, occasionally polarizing artist. Genuinely thinking about her complicated new film pays far greater dividends, even if you don’t become one of those people who likes Miranda July.