We use the word “quirky” a lot when we talk about indie films. Whether it’s in relation to their humor, their plot, or their characters, the sense of quirk and strangeness that a small-budget film carries is often the very trait that makes it feel like an indie. While plenty overdo it with their idiosyncrasies, the great ones find that sweet spot between the normal and the abnormal. But almost no recent film is as off-the-wall—or effective—with its strangeness as Miranda July’s second feature, The Future.
The Future starts like any other indie rom-com—a thirty-something couple struggling with adulthood find themselves at a crossroads—but soon drops into full-on surrealism. We have talking cats narrating sections of the film, t-shirts crawling across town to find their adulterous owners, a discussion between man and the moon, and the physical stoppage of all time on Earth.
This is a lot, and on the surface, it may seem like too much. This isn’t a sci-fi movie—it’s a drama, and a relatively simple one at that. But all of it works, because it isn’t strangeness just for strangeness’s sake. By taking an axe to conventional logic and storytelling and ripping into the subconscious of her two lead characters (July herself and Hamish Linklater as her boyfriend), she’s able to create a sort of emotional logic that allows us to understand exactly what these people are going through, even more than a conventional narrative would.
Part of the reason this works is because every instance of the surreal is calculated to perfection. There is a saying that Roger Ebert was quite fond of that goes: If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t. He wasn’t talking about The Future, but he might as well have been. The flutters of the surreal and magical are all assigned a specific purpose by July, and she uses them to create a sort of visual language to express what her characters are feeling about their love and loss.
The actual feeling of loss that comes with the end of love can be incredibly tricky to portray on screen. Have your characters talk too much about their feelings and you end up over-explaining; fill the scene with too many looks of longing and sadness and you risk falling into melodrama. The genius of The Future is how deftly July sidesteps these trappings of straightforward storytelling. Cinema is the language of images, and she knows that that language can be more powerful than actual words. It’s logic that speaks to the procession of emotion instead of the procession of events. Longing for a home you’ve fled feels like an old t-shirt walking its way back to you, reminding you of just how soft and cozy things were. The end of a relationship can feel like time has stopped; moving on is just as difficult as restarting the ocean by yourself. These things aren’t meant to be confounding, they’re meant to show us a feeling in a way that we might not have been able to experience it otherwise. The Future isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a daring one, one that isn’t afraid to try to reach that unnameable territory of emotion that lies within all of us. We may not be able to verbalize how we feel about the film, but that only means that it’s done exactly what it set out to do.