If someone other than Miranda July had made “The Future,’’ which is impossible because “The Future’’ is so utterly and completely Miranda July, whatever that means, odds are good that other filmmaker wouldn’t be offering online oracular services. Or publishing screen shots of her colleagues’
That’s a taste of what it means to be Miranda July: penetrating, playful, poetic, unnerving. “The Future,’’ which opens Friday in Boston, is her second full-length feature. It arrives six years after “Me and You and Everyone We Know,’’ which July also wrote, directed, and starred in. That film won the Camera d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, and a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Originality of Vision, which is perhaps the most apt honor one might bestow on July. Both of her feature films, as well as her live performance pieces, video art, Web-based projects, short fiction, and an interactive sculpture garden she designed for the 2009 Venice Biennale are disarming inquiries into the struggle to connect - with each other, with ourselves, and with some kind of meaning in the modern world.
Beyond that, the 37-year-old artist’s work gets more complicated to describe, partly because it’s such an unlikely mash-up of the mundane and the fantastic. In “The Future,’’ Jason (Hamish Linklater), and Sophie (July), a couple in their mid-30s, decide to adopt a stray cat (July, in a voice-over role as the film’s narrator). They have a month to wait until the cat’s injured paw heals, and during that time their perspective on life changes radically. They quit their jobs. Jason purposefully surrenders to chance, and Sophie attempts to create 30 YouTube dances in 30 days. Things go horribly wrong, and the course of time and space is altered.
“Even my brother said the other day that he had no idea, for years, what the movie was actually about,’’ says July. “The plots are never that interesting, really.’’
By that, July means she tells stories that resemble life, in all its excruciating imperfection and radiant aspiration. July herself embodies a sort of imperfect radiance. She arrives for an interview in a hotel conference room wearing a sensible skirt suit with hot pink tights and a fat black tie. Her curls are wild and somehow sad all at once. She’s awkward and lovely, tongue-tied and articulate. Despite her keen intelligence and manifold accomplishments, July retains the quiet wonder of a girl.
When July was a girl named Miranda Jennifer Grossinger (she adopted the name of her teen zine alter ego in high school and made it legal in her early 20s), she kept a folder labeled “Ways to go back in time/enter other worlds.’’ She still has the folder, which is empty, and she still has the feeling that there might be a way to fill it, although it’s been a one-way trip so far.
After “Me and You and Everyone We Know’’ came out, July needed a paying gig - the movie brought her attention but no money - so she parlayed the moment into a book advance. “No One Belongs Here More Than You,’’ her collection of stories, was published in 2007 by Scribner. July was in her early 30s, and time was soon to return, in her words, as the protagonist in her life. She began work on a theater piece called “Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About.’’ The show featured an interpretive dance in a body-swallowing T-shirt-cum-security blanket, a talking moon, and stopped time. July fantasized about adapting the solo performance for the screen as an experimental, boundary-pushing film.
“But as I went on with the performance I began to realize that it might really be more interesting in a less avant-garde context,’’ July says. “I thought, ‘God, if I could just make the dance in the shirt and the talking moon make enough sense, you know, narratively, then that could be the most powerful thing.’ Those were my touchstones. The hard part was to make the more normal stuff mean as much to me.’’
In July’s estimation, making it through the day and making time stand still are roughly equal challenges. That she has developed a singular artistic vocabulary to convey that skewed poignancy is a rare gift - one that Linklater (best known for his role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s brother in “The New Adventures of Old Christine’’) found so alluring he went to a private acting coach, hired a personal trainer, and submitted to dream therapy to enhance his chances of landing the role of Jason.
“Her voice is like a laser. There isn’t a false or put-on note,’’ says Linklater, the Berkshires-bred son of Shakespeare and Company co-founder Kristin Linklater. Her methods are likewise pointed. Where a cast dinner is typically the beginning and end of pre-shoot bonding, July lined a walk-in closet in her house with sofa cushions and pillows and asked Linklater to bring his photo albums, his favorite music, and his life story to share during an epic hang. With a budget that allowed for only 21 days of filming, Linklater says, “we had to smash in as much relationship stuff as we could.’’
“The Future’’ is a full-metal relationship movie. There’s Jason and Sophie, who are navigating the tepid waters where even soul mates eventually splash down, and there’s Sophie and Sophie, a relationship that’s in far worse shape than Sophie and Jason’s and which leads her to Marshall (David Warkosky), whose immaculate house and 1,000-thread-count sheets represent Sophie’s ultimate exit strategy from herself.
July calls it her version of a horror film.
“When I was doing the performance it was less dark,’’ she says. “Like, the affair was really just an affair, it wasn’t about fleeing your soul. And I wasn’t that concerned with time when I started it, but it was a really crucial period. I got married [to writer and director Mike Mills, whose film “Beginners’’ is in theaters], and I was getting closer to the end of my 30s, so suddenly I became hyper-aware of time. And I began to realize that my worst fear is that I would fail myself, and in failing myself I would want to break up with myself, and I would do that in a way that was most destructive to my life.’’
July isn’t the first person to fantasize about swapping herself for a different model, but she probes that particularly wretched category of fear and loathing with a uniquely tender hand and genuine reverence for the mysterious nature of, well, everything. In that regard it seems odd that July was attracted to the noisy, agenda-driven Riot Grrrl scene in Portland, Ore., where she cut her teeth as an artist. Her friend Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and “Portlandia’’ fame, says that July was inspired by the movement’s broadest themes.
“It was a very contrarian and reactionary scene, and even though some of the beliefs were naïve or sophomoric I think it informed all of us, including Miranda, with the idea that we were unstoppable,’’ Brownstein says. “We could exist outside the normal structures of film or music and make something exciting, and that breeds its own language.’’
The freedom to forge a path, however, requires self-imposed constraints. For July, who is contemplating her next project, it means returning to the same question over and over again.
“What is confusing or mysterious to me? You know, I don’t really believe that in art or in life things get resolved, so there are these sort of sustained questions. And sustaining the energy and the openness and the contradictions kind of does end up resolving it, in a way,’’ July says. “It becomes less urgently about needing the answer.’’