“Have you ever been outside?” asks Miranda July at the start of The Future. “Not temporarily, I mean born outside,” she adds, where you’re surrounded by “a darkness it’s not appropriate to talk about.” The screen, at this moment, is dark, and her voice is scratchy and childlike, as July puts on another of her precious, quirky performances, this time as a cat named Paw-Paw.
The cat will come back in The Future, represented by a pair of paws, one in a cast. Paw-Paw a lost and lonely creature, saved by a pair of humans and delivered to a shelter, where she now waits for them to return and fetch her. The humans, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), are waiting too. They’ve decided to adopt the cat, but have been told the cast must come off before they can bring her home: they have a month. As they discuss the imminent changes this responsibility will bring to their life together, they begin to worry. The cat is sick and not expected to live very long, but if they take good care of her, Paw-Paw might last as long as five years.
As they contemplate the difference between a couple of months and five years, Sophie and Jason begin to think more substantively about time. Before the prospect of the cat, they’ve considered time in conceptual, casual, and even playful terms: they’re introduced in a scene where they sit on opposite ends of a corduroy couch in their LA apartment, legs intertwined and laptops on their bellies. Their matching curly dark heads of hair form bookends, measures of the frame’s edges. When Jason suggests he can freeze time, they both freeze, admiring each other’s stillness: “You’re so good at this,” Jason says, just before his cell phone rings and he’s back at work — as a computer tech. The spell is broken, and a few moments later, we see what Sophie does for a living, namely, teaching tiny girls to flutter and stretch in tutus. As she has them play that familiar dance class game where they gather under a silky yellow tarp, she looks sad and you know: this isn’t the future she once imagined.
The cat’s coming inspires Jason and Sophie to change their routine, and turns the film into a series of too obvious images. They quit the jobs they’ve never liked and plan on a month of activity that will be meaningful, as once paw-Paw arrives, they will be committed to being at the apartment, to caring for the pet. Worried that a colleague at the dance studio has posted dance videos (essentially, gyrating to a favorite pop song), Sophie comes up with a plan, 30 dances in 30 days. As she begins to dance for her laptop camera, thrusting her hips and waving her arms, you see that her ideas are geometric and vague, not the faux-sexy sort that attracts thousands of hits. She frets, she freezes, she doesn’t post videos.
At the same time, more or less, Jason finds a new interest, apparently by accident. He agrees to go door to door for Tree by Tree, an environmentalists’ organization for which he is — he soon learns — the only mobile solicitor. The people whose doors he knocks on are hardly happy to see him, coldly eyeing his cheap logoed vest and barely waiting for the right moment to shut him down. One woman gives him her junk mail to throw out and soon enough, he’s distracted by the personal ads, in particular one posted by an old man who wants to sell a not quite refurbished blow-dryer, complete with tape on the cord. “You had a good day,” worries Sophie when he comes home. “You were out there having fulfilling experiences.”
“How long is 30 days?” asks Paw-Paw. “A little longer than, say, for example, the day after tomorrow.” As she waits for her “real life to begin,” she says, “I learned to count the seconds,” reciting “Now, now, now,” as her paw paws the newspaper covering her cage floor. As she waits, Jason and Sophie find distractions. He returns to visit with the hairdryer guy, who starts explaining how time works, or more specifically, how relationships take time; she takes a lover, Marshall (David Warshofsky), a middle-aged single father (“I live with my dad because my mom’s a free spirit,” explains his young daughter Gaby [Isabella Acres]). He makes commercial banners and signs and has a house in Tarzana, and if he’s boring, Sophie appreciates his 1000-thread count sheets, the ice cream in his freezer, and the fact that he’s happy watching her, that he calls her pretty. When she notes that the chain on his neck is ” a little sleazy,” he smiles. “Then you’re receiving the message,” he smiles, sort of. “I’m ready to fuck.”
As Sophie and Jason’s experiences diverge, as their senses of selves come unmatched, the film becomes increasingly abstract. Each has a different experience of time: his literally stops, or rather, he keeps moving while everyone around him isn’t, like he’s been dropped into a Twilight Zone episode. Sophie’s time goes a little sideways, as she moves in with Marshall and Gaby (who begins digging a hole in the backyard, not a little unsubtle as metaphors go) and contemplates a cozy extra-larger t-shirt that reads “C’est la nuit” and seems a sign of her elusive present-past with Jason.
As she finds her dance at last — her face and body collapsed and transformed by the t-shirt into a querulous lump — Sophie is hard to watch (at least judging by Marshall’s look of apprehension, or maybe revulsion. She’s also hard to forgive, for Jason, hurt by her carelessness — whether in her mind, in his, or in their shared life. During a late re-encounter, she stands out of frame, her voice scratchy like Paw-Paw’s, and the film makes too utterly clear the functions of time, the pain of uncertainty, and the childless mother’s self-image, her literal absence now reflected in her ex’s eyes. She’s outside. And still obvious.