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If you sat through writer-director-actor Miranda July’s debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, you may remember a goldfish, sitting in a plastic bag perched precariously on top of a moving car. July’s character is horrified by it, worrying if there’s anything she can do, wondering if she should say a few words for these, likely the last moments of the poor creature’s life. When a little girl spots the fish, too, July’s character is sad but, with utter solemnity, says, “At least we’re all in this together.” The scene probably solidified your view of the auteur: that she’s either insufferable—here my hand shoots up—or brilliant.
In July’s Me and You follow-up, The Future, a cat provides the same test: An injured stray narrates the film from its cage at an adoption center. It speaks the film’s opening words in a child’s voice and slightly broken English, opining about living outside and “the darkness that is not appropriate to talk about.” Its name is Paw-Paw. Here we go again, you’ll think.
Paw-Paw, by the end of the film, will destroy you.
The kitty turns out to be just what The Future needs to underscore its dreamlike melancholy, the cat’s monologues powerfully twisting your gut even as you watch scenes that could easily descend into goldfish-grade foolishness. As in her first film, July’s character is central to the story. She plays Sophie, a 35-year-old dance teacher and girlfriend to Jason (Hamish Linklater), with whom she shares her age and haircut. The couple finds Paw-Paw and decides to adopt it, but first it must spend a month at the shelter recuperating from its many ailments. Once they bring the cat home, it will demand more attention than a dog, requiring frequent medication. Therefore, at least one of them can’t be very far away.
This, they decide, will be a life-changing move. Plus, in five years they will be 40, which is essentially 50, which essentially means any control they have over their lives is largely gone. And now they have only a month to be truly free. They agree, therefore, to live this month as if they were dying. What does that mean to them? Well, Sophie aims to make one dance video a day, to rival the show-offy ones a co-worker is always putting on YouTube. Jason has a more general approach, a resolution to remain open to new things, which results in his taking a volunteer position as a door-to-door save-the-trees guy. While Jason’s new commitment keeps him busy, Sophie’s failure to adhere to hers—she’s a terrible dancer—leads to an affair. In the meantime, Paw-Paw counts down the days until they’ll pick him up, his new owners heavy on his mind even though he’s not at the forefront of theirs.
The Future, to its benefit, is darker than Me and You and Everyone We Know, though it shares that film’s sad-faced what’s-it-all-about? searchingness. You may not buy Sophie’s quick willingness to become involved with Marshall (David Warshofsky), an older dad who drew a portrait Jason bought from the shelter, but the repercussions of the affair are heartbreaking. Jason fires up a new relationship, too, though his is with an elderly man and borderline hoarder who’s happy to feed Jason white-bread sandwiches and show him the junk he’s accumulated over the years. It’s touching, too.
Throughout, the film is tinged with surrealism. Jason’s early joke that he can stop time, for instance, later comes to fruition in a devastating way. A security-blanket T-shirt that Sophie clings to crawls its way to Marshall’s house when she seemingly abandons it. (In a classic July moment, Sophie lets it catch up to her and then crawls into it, putting her legs through its armholes and pulling the bottom over her head. She then moves around the room like a Cirque du Soleil reject.) And then there’s Paw-Paw, a tired soul, who waits and waits and waits for his new life to begin.
It may sound too precious, but surprisingly it all works, offering an honest portrait of time: how we can embrace it or waste it, how quickly it passes, how anticipation is sweet. After a series of heartaches, the final scene is open-ended—just like, well, the future.