Writer/director/performance artist Miranda July is certainly quirky, but her quirks seem to be totally heartfelt and without calculation -- or at least if they are calculated, she's enjoying them as much as she hopes her audience will. Which is to say she's an artist who follows the central rule of creating art -- please yourself first. The Future, her second feature film, finds the award-winning hyphenate exploring the anxiety and stress that we all feel about, well, the future.
She plays Sophie, a thirtysomething children's dance instructor happily cohabitating with Jason (Hamish Linklater), an at-home call-center operator. In a month they plan to adopt Paw-Paw, an injured stray cat at a local shelter, after the vet there says the animal is healthy enough to leave. The duo, realizing that in 30 days they will commit their lives to another living thing, decide to seize the day and follow their dreams before it's too late to do so.
For the seemingly shy Sophie that means creating 30 dances in 30 days for YouTube, and for Jason, that means quitting his job and going door to door for an environmental charity. But what they do turns out to be less important than who they meet. Jason befriends an old man who writes dirty poems about his beloved, while an artistically blocked Sophie calls a stranger who Jason bought a picture from while they were at the animal shelter -- prompting an unexpected affair between the two.
That description makes The Future sound far more conventional than it is -- after all this is a movie narrated by a deep-thinking cat that's awaiting adoption. Everybody in the film behaves in ways that could charitably be called "odd," but that works because July isn't as interested in creating a straightforward narrative as she is in constructing a formalist examination of time, love, and death -- meaning the characters make choices and respond to each other in ways that make total sense within the film's logic. If you don't connect to July's wavelength, Sophie, Jason, and everyone they know will seem like aliens.
However, not unlike a small-scale version of Terrence Malick's audience-polarizing Tree of Life, it's hard to argue that the movie's structure draws enough parallels between the various themes and characters that it's possible to be moved by it. For all the indecipherable timelines, children buried up to their heads, philosophical felines, and silly wordplay, the emotional core of the movie is in the recurring use of Peggy Lee crooning the Rodgers & Hart classic "Where or When." As the tune plays for the final time -- over a concluding scene that leaves the future of the main couple very much in the air -- it provides a subtle clue as to how the director feels about what the characters have gone through. Namely, July is making the point that while the future is unknowable, there will always be love. It's a moral that dovetails beautifully with the movie's tender, vulnerable tone.