Miranda July's The Future is narrated by a stray cat that mid-thirties couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) take in, and like that fragile kitty, the movie feels like it needs your protection. July's first film since the acclaimed 2005 indie Me And You And Everyone We Know (which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes), it dares to indulge in moments that are both precious and unabashedly sincere — after all, this is a movie where July herself voices that stray cat (in a high-pitched, childish voice), who's occasionally animated by halting puppetry. And yet, a funny thing happens as the initially innocuous The Future gets darker and darker: Suddenly, the movie wearing its heart on its sleeve has reached up that sleeve to pull out a whole bunch of affecting, unnerving tricks. Thus far, it's the film of the festival.
After four years of being together and with their late thirties looming, Sophie and Jason realize that most of their ambitions have come to naught. That stray cat they've saved from the streets will need a month of veterinary care (and then, untold years of close attention to make sure it doesn't succumb to its internal injuries), and suddenly Sophie realizes that after the cat comes back from the animal hospital, she and Jason will finally have to grow up and get settled. So they make a pact: They'll quit their jobs, unplug the Internet, and squeeze their lifetime dreams into the single month they've got left.
It sounds like a cutesy, hipster spin on the old yarn where a protagonist faced with death begins to truly live, and yet, July has more subversive intentions. The filmmaker says she was inspired by her smart female friends who reached their late thirties without ever quite realizing their ambitions, and now face the dilemma of "getting pregnant and giving up" or dedicating the next few years to fulfilling their potential (with the caveat that they then might not be able to get pregnant at 40). And while Sophie and Jason use their first part of their "final month" in whimsical ways — Jason befriends an old man whose hairdryer he bought through an issue Pennysaver, while Sophie decides to impulsively call the artist whose drawing Jason bought at the veterinary hospital ("We're both facing east," she says haltingly to him, attempting conversation. "Maybe we're neighbors") — their relationship begins to fall apart, and the movie, until this point as slender as its leads, toughens up.
Unable to fulfill even the most modest goal she's set for herself — a series of YouTube dances, uploaded once a day — Sophie's artistic self-loathing becomes all-consuming. She withdraws from Jason and essentially breaks up with herself, ditching her pleasant but underperforming life to doggedly pursue the stranger she's begun talking to on the phone. As the two begin an affair, she moves into his suburban home and gives up, becoming both a passive object of desire and a jobless, aimless housewife. Meanwhile, a shattered Jason — who'd planned to grow old with Sophie — refuses to acknowledge her absence and withdraws from the world. The practically arbitrary 30-day deadline has forced both Sophie and Jason to realize that the rest of their lives won't be what they'd always wanted, or even felt they deserved.
In its own way, then, The Future is a bit of a bait and switch: Innocent and earnest enough that you think you have it pegged, but then you miss the emotional sideswipe that's coming. Though both of July's movies have starred her as a character who doubts her own potential, and in fact July admitted that she dreaded mounting a second feature, every line of dialogue in The Future is sure-footed and exact, and every scene is specific enough to be its own short film. Perhaps we made a mistake in thinking that as a work of art, The Future was fragile: By the end of the movie, it was the unusually affected moviegoers themselves who were vulnerable. With this sophomore effort, July has proven herself one of cinema's most vital voices.