I am not a Miranda July hater. "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (2005) felt almost painfully fresh to me — I'd never seen anything like it. It had, in offbeat colors and patterns, a preternatural understanding that love and sex vibrate on wavelengths we can't quite see or hear, only sense.
It didn't hurt that stretches of July's directorial debut made me laugh as a child laughs, even at material best suited to the humor of a 6th grader. Part scatological, part erotic, part slapstick, the comedy of "Me and You and Everyone We Know" achieved an unexpected magic, led by July's light, uninterrupted command of the camera and her actors. Somehow she warded off the worst indulgences of her style, the indulgences that have animated her (sometimes fierce) critics.
And so I eagerly anticipated "The Future" (2011), which promised to apply the same magical realism to a more adult narrative, promised to mark July's arrival as a major filmmaker. But as an actress, she looks more pained, more anxious now than she did all those years ago — she's so pale, thin, curls in on herself so tightly, that you half wonder if she's trying to make herself invisible. This trick of evaporation, when coupled with narrating cats and precocious children and talking moons and all the other accoutrements of July's fantasia, works only to distract from what is so emotionally powerful about the film. For it, like her debut, displays a compelling and adept understanding of what it means to be part of that generation for whom the promises were broken.
"The Future" is the story of Sophie (July) and her boyfriend of four years, Jason (Hamish Linklater), both in the throes of what used to be called a mid-life crisis. As Sophie notes, though, she's been preparing to do "something big" for 15 years, which suggests a strain of fragility that runs deeper than a momentary failure of confidence. He quits his job to take up volunteer work; she quits him to take up with another man; they forget to pick up Paw-Paw, the narrating cat, who waits for them to adopt him, in vain.
There are moments in the film so precise, or so audacious, that July's talent isn't in doubt so much as her judgment. When they decide to shut off their Internet connection for 30 days and have an hour to look up "only important things," the slow realization that they will find none of those things in cyberspace feels exactly right — it gets at that desire we all have to reconnect by disconnecting. A dance at the film's climax, which can be described only as unsettling, eloquently conveys all of the characters' unspoken miseries. "This is just the moment," Jason says near the end, "before it all falls down."
And yet for long stretches of "The Future" I was left frustrated by the characters' lack of trying. Adopting a cat and shutting off the Internet do not seem to me adequate responses to this kind of unhappiness. I guess what I mean is that the film, straddling the line between sorcery and sensibility, fails to embrace either. You can go off the grid and change your life, or you can buck up and make the best of it, but in the end you can't have both; it's a contradiction in terms. Paw-Paw, "waiting for my real life to begin," is emblematic of the indecisiveness of "The Future," a film less about fighting anomie than resigning to it. That Sophie and Jason are left reeling from their failure of good intentions may be July's comment on the bed they've made for themselves, but it was a comment I found illegible. All I thought was, "they can go ahead and lay in it."