The Future: toying with the indie formula

In her latest feature, Miranda July barely strays from the staples of indie flicks: quirky sets, handheld cameras and off-beat music.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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Indie cinema once provided a vital antidote to the formulaic output of the mainstream. Today, however, it encompasses a very particular style and set of audience pleasures. One can scoff at Hollywood’s ‘if it has enough explosions, they will come’ approach to filmmaking, yet successful indie films seem to function in much the same way. The palette is different, but it is no less predictable: quirky characters, handheld-camera work and an off-beat soundtrack.

On the surface, these indie flicks appear to be doing something infinitely more complex and interesting than their mainstream counterparts, yet pseudo-intellectual references and non-linear storytelling usually hide a conventional and simplistic narrative. Miranda July’s The Future appears to be the very definition of modern indie cinema’s vacuity.

This film – July’s second feature as writer, director and star – tells the story of internet addicts Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (Miranda July), who, previously contented with their menial existences, are forced to rethink their priorities. The pair decide to adopt an injured stray cat, thinking that he will only hang on for another six months or so anyway. The vet soon informs them that if little ‘Paw Paw’ bonds with them he could well live on for another five years. Sophie and Jason are faced with the realisation that, if this turns out to be the case, they will be 40 by the time they are once again free from responsibility.

With 30 days remaining before Paw Paw is well enough to be brought home, Jason and Sophie quit their jobs in order to pursue a higher calling, reasoning that at 40 they will be too old to do anything meaningful with their lives. So Jason volunteers for a local plant-a-tree foundation and Sophie decides to record herself doing different dance routines and uploads them to YouTube.

The film opens with the two sat on their couch, tapping away on their respective laptops. They begin to talk about the virtues of having a miniature crane to fetch them beverages and whether or not Jason has the ability to freeze time. Such inane dialogue continues throughout the film, alongside more morose conversations about the pressures of growing older.

As with 500 Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an off-beat indie aesthetic tarts up a rather vague meditation on love, life and aging. That the film takes place in a typically kitschy vintage world helps give it a feel of portraying a meaningless hipster dreamscape.

Yet beneath all the thrift-store clothing and kooky haircuts, something genuinely odd is going on here. After Jason and Sophie fail to find fulfilment in their new way of life, the film takes on a more surreal tone: Paw Paw performs philosophical monologues, Jason sparks up a conversation with the moon, and in one arresting scene, Sophie is consumed by a yellow t-shirt and dances around the bedroom almost hypnotised.

For the most part, the film’s stranger features seem designed to satisfy a hipster audience that will lap up pretty much anything that appears vaguely artsy. However, its ability to mystify rather than offer blatant symbolism is something to be applauded. All too often indie films wrap up as neatly as Hollywood blockbusters, yet here July has crafted a genuinely perplexing and open-ended work.

At times, July in fact appears to mock her audience, as Sophie and Jason are in many ways a comic send-up of the sort of empty-headed lefty scenesters who worship the ground her vintage brogues walk on. For instance, when Sophie quizzes Jason as to why he cares so much about environmentalism, given that he spends most of his time indoors on his MacBook, he replies that he likes to know nature would still be there if he ever chose to venture outside. Moments like this bring some self-awareness to the film, and give you a little more license to enjoy The Future despite its apparent pretention.

In many ways, Miranda July is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with indie cinema. Yet, The Future is, if nothing else, a different kind of filmic experience, and that’s something that most independent productions fail to provide.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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