“Act naturally,” says a little girl to Miranda July as she digs a backyard grave for herself. Although the girl is really saying it to July’s character Sophie, you could well imagine her passing on that advice to the famed performance artist, musician, author and writer/director/star of The Future. In her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, July allowed quirk to overwhelm her offbeat romantic tale. Every emotional moment veered closer to ‘cuteness’ rather than ‘honesty’, making the whole thing seem false. Here, she refines the balance, intertwining the quirkiness with moments of real beauty, warmth, tragedy and heartbreak. This eases us into her universe, where a little girl spending the night in a neck-high mudgrave is acting naturally, as is a cat narrating events and a man freezing time and talking to the moon.
The storyline is simple and frighteningly relatable: Sophie and Jason (Hamish Linklater) have been together for four years, and decide to take the next step and adopt a seriously ill cat (Paw Paw, our soothing, feline, Morgan Freeman replacement, given voice by July). At first they think the cat will only survive for six months – the perfect long-term investment for two juvenile 35-year-olds – but when the vet says kitty could live for up to five years, the duo begin to view their bleak destinies locked in place. With one month to go before they pick up Paw Paw from the cat hospital, they pledge to cram their final four weeks of freedom with as much adventure, self-discovery and life-goal fulfillment as humanly possible. It takes less than a week for them to fall apart.
Although that premise could reasonably exist in any Kate Hudson vehicle, you have to understand that this version of a romantic comedy has been processed through July’s highly unique prism. This is a movie in which a character can perform an elaborate dance whilst wearing a t-shirt stretched around their entire person like a latex body suit, and another character will wordlessly understand that this means they are being dumped. Her voice is one of a kind, and although I wasn’t the biggest fan of her last picture, I had hoped it would take her less than six years to return to cinemas to refine it. The Future is far more intimate than Me and You and Everyone We Know; the title alone felt like she was biting off more than she could chew. The Future is more ‘Just Me and You’; although there are interesting ancillary characters – including the ever-lovable Paw Paw – we meet them only because they complement the shifting relationship between Sophie and Jason. The performances from both the leads are pitch perfect (added points for sharing the same haircut). They make July’s world – which before seemed so false – come to life, and help deliver a very funny, deeply affecting film. As an elderly character reminds Jason, this isn’t the end – it’s merely “the middle of the beginning”. Glad to see that’s where July’s film career seems to be at too.