Fear not the actor/director's preciousness
If David Lynch made a film about talking kitties and disaffected dancers, it might be a little bit like Miranda July's new movie The Future (opening in New York this Friday). Soaked through with the dazzling Los Angeles sunshine, July's work is often disarmingly lovely with an undercurrent of faint dread creeping through out. So why then have her movies been described as " perfectly twee" and "precious?" A recent, complimentary New York Times Sunday Magazine profile pegged her as "the unwilling exemplar of an aggravating boho archetype: the dreamy, young hipster whose days are filled with coffee, curios and disposable enchantments." The artist is a bit like the cilantro of indie film: a divisive, acquired taste.
The Future tells the story of Sophie and Jason, a couple living in a dingy LA apartment. Trapped in the humdrum existence of unfulfilling jobs and unfulfilled potential, the two decide they will adopt a sick cat in 30 days. This gives them a month to change their lives and become the people they've waited their adulthoods to transform into. Sophie will create a dance and document it for the world to see. Jason will live his life guided by fate, unmoored, no longer bound to his couch and his computer. But with no jobs and no internet, the couple soon find themselves paralyzed by the looming deadline of the cat, Paw Paw, and the responsibility he represents to them.
For every kindly talking moon or adorable wide-eyed child, there are moments of stark, often grim reality
The plot summary on its own admittedly reads a bit like the "INSUFFERABLE PRECIOUS NONSENSE" that the creators of the I Hate Miranda July blog rail against. But the filmmaker is able to turn the boredom and quiet despair at the movie's center on its head. Paw-Paw, the sick cat, narrates the movie with shockingly touching meditations on life and love. The moon talks. A sad, well-worn T-shirt creeps along the pavement like a wounded animal, following Sophie on her journey. A wise old man repairs hair dryers and writes dirty limericks. These are the elements of whimsy that have earned July the dreaded descriptor of "twee" and comparisons (not always nice) to filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Todd Solondz.
Because July writes, directs and stars in her own films (Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) she is an easy target for vitriol. Her dark curls, long lashes, and halting, wheezy voice are instantly recognizable hallmarks. Watching The Future, it is can be difficult to remember that you are watching Sophie, a character, and not July, an actor. This is because July, surrounded by a truly gifted cast (most notably Hamish Linklater who plays Jason and delivers a vulnerable, tightly wound performance as a man whose intensity belies his hipster/slacker trappings) is perhaps not the world's greatest actress. She is often the comic relief. Her wide-eyed, herky-jerky movements can be so painfully awkward to watch that one must remind themselves she is playing a role.
But the simple fact that July plays unlikeable, infuriatingly vulnerable roles is bold in itself. Whereas the female characters in a Wes Anderson film are blank slates upon which the male actors pin their hopes and desires, July's depiction of women is honest, sometimes to a fault. In The Future, when Sophie declares, "I wish I were just a notch more beautiful," there was a collective cringe among the women in the audience at the screening I viewed. It would be safe to wager that most of these women, despite talent, intelligence, and accomplishments, have all, secretly, at some point, thought the same thing. But it is Miranda July who will utter the sentiment out loud. It is simultaneously embarrassing and courageous.
Nor does July fit the "manic-pixie-dream-girl" fetish mold of some indie films. She is not a gorgeous young ingénue planted in the movie to squeal and giggle and eventually bring the male protagonist into a greater understanding of life by sleeping with him. In The Future's sex scene, July stands naked from the waist down against a sofa, ready to be penetrated. But just before the act is consummated, her partner pauses, goes to another room for a condom, and unwraps it in all too excruciatingly familiar moment that seems to go on forever. It's an utterly honest depiction of contemporary coupling.
And perhaps this is why Miranda July is more than twee and only occasionally precious. Because for every kindly talking moon or adorable wide-eyed child, there are moments of stark, often grim reality. Jon Brion's score is caustic and jittery, but also lovely in its off-kilter melodies, much like the writer-director herself. It will never be a top seller on iTunes, but it couldn't more perfectly compliment this film. Every object on screen, from a stack of vegetable skewers to a paper bag of tortilla chips, is carefully chosen to represent most accurately the character's states of being. July, as the New York Times Magazine recently put it, really is not kidding. Her movies don't please everyone, and certainly there will be fodder for her detractors in The Future. But it's an expertly crafted and careful exploration of desire and love. It depicts life, in all its precious and silly asymmetry.