Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Welcome to "The Future"

I don't like using "quirky" and "hispter" as descriptors, because they're rather vaguely defined terms, and are too often used to dismiss films about certain kinds of people and certain elements of modern day culture. In my experience, "hipster" is pretty much a catch-all for anyone who makes certain fashion choices or exudes even a whiff of irony in attitude or conversation. Take "The Future," for instance. It is a relentlessly whimsical, very odd, and somewhat self-indulgent indie film about a thirty-something couple whose relationship hits the rocks. Is it something that the hypothetical hipster population might enjoy? Sure. Does that mean it's a hipster film, as so many have decided to label it? I don't think so.

Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are a directionless pair of underachievers. She teaches tots at a dance studio and puts less-than-inspired videos of her own original routines on Youtube. He works from home in a low-skill tech support job. They decide to adopt a cat from the local shelter, Paw Paw, who is suffering from multiple ailments. The realization that committing to the cat means committing to a long-term responsibility they didn't really think through, suddenly puts their lives in perspective. Paw Paw has to stay at the shelter for an additional month, and in that time, Sophie decides that she'll turn her life around and Jason gamely follows her lead. Both quit their jobs and strike out in new directions, Sophie devoting more time to her dance videos and Jason getting a new gig selling trees door to door.

The world of "The Future" is a place of magic realism, where Jason can stop time at will, and has existential conversations with the moon. The entire film is narrated by Paw-Paw, represented by a pair of furry puppet forepaws, and a bizarre, scratchy, high-pitched voice. But despite all these playful, oddball storytelling devices, the humor is very black and the mood of the film mirrors the mood of Sophie, who is having some kind of midlife-crisis, or perhaps very late growing pains. She is bored, frustrated, unable to express herself, and all too aware that she's getting older and going nowhere. July's previous film, "You and Me and Everyone We Know," dealt with the formation of personal relationships in a similar fashion, but the characters in "The Future" are far more anxious, damaged, and adrift.

The approach reminds me a little of what Michel Gondry did with "A Science of Sleep," reflecting the creative inner world of his introvert hero with homemade effects, but July's work is more grounded in the real world, and her flights of fancy are far less fantastic. Sophie will put on silly-looking outfits to dance in, but we're supposed to find her sad and ridiculous when she does so. Quirkiness doesn't lead to adventure and enlightenment, as they might in a usual feel-good film, but often embarrassment or rejection. The film comes across as deeply personal and critical, and if Sophie is July's stand-in, it's telling that she represents herself as a little vacant, a little self-deluding, a little selfish, and little nuts. I found the character unlikeable and obtuse at first, but watching her deal with unexpected disappointment and failure won over my sympathies in the end.

If anything, "The Future" came across as an anti-hipster film, showing the limits of the kind of pseudo-bohemian, self-involved lifestyle that Sophie and Jason choose to live. There are moments that still celebrate the characters' individualism, however. The payoff to Jason's tree-selling career is a poignant moment. He genuinely believes in what he's doing, even if can't figure out how to be any kind of success at it. Our sympathies are meant to be with the couple from start to finish, but reality is unforgiving, and idealism is no panacea. It's not so much a message as an attitude, pointing July toward far more interesting emotional territory than what she explored in "You and Me."

Unfortunately, though I like individual segments and sequences of "The Future," it doesn't work as a whole. The conclusion is a muddle of ambiguous loose ends, several minor characters and storylines are abandoned, and some elements just seem to be thrown into the mix at random. Ideas are introduced but never fully explored, plots set up but never properly executed. Only one character achieves anything resembling definitive closure, while others arrive at arbitrary endpoints, almost by accident. The director is also a performance artist, and at times the film feels a lot like a bunch of different sketches slapped together. It's a very unsatisfying watch on a narrative level.

And yet, you have to admire Miranda July for making such an unconventional film, and accomplishing as much as she did with it. There are characters in the film worth meeting, and many creative visuals worth looking at and appreciating. I'd love to see July make more films, because her point of view is such a distinct and interesting one. But next time, if there is a next time, more story and less puppets please.

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