Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of nothingness. Oukontic nothingness is the kind you’d normally think of when you read the word “nothing,” defined as pure lack, the kind for which, as Gertrude Stein once said, “there is no there there.” The other kind is meontic nothingness, and it’s a nothingness you can do things with, like (to use a simile) the compressed air in a submerged submarine relative to the surrounding water. In terms of the extremes of cinema, oukontic nothingness could be used to characterize films that have no value, or films that are utterly inept at conveying whatever they’re supposed to: Gotti (2018), for instance. Meontic nothingness, on the other hand, could be another way to describe pure cinema, the je ne sais quoi that tells you, “This is a work of cinematic art.” The Future (2011), written and directed by and starring Miranda July, is an ingenious work of meontic nothingness.
Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are thirtysomethings living together in LA. They have dead-end jobs, no ambition, and no life, but they don’t seem to have any bills to pay or things to worry about, either. From the first visual scene, following a voiceover on black by a cat named Paw Paw (July’s voice; we’ll get to that), we can tell from the ennui with which they converse in their intimate private language that they’re content with each other, if not exactly happy. They seem to feel the same, for they decide to adopt a cat with kidney problems as a quasi-commitment: It’ll die soon anyway. But the cat, Paw Paw (Ella), has to undergo a month of treatment before they can take it home. Being stuck in the in-between time sparks a midlife crisis, and they decide to quit their jobs to follow their dreams: Sophie to become a famous YouTube dancer, Jason to—well, to take life up on whatever it offers him.
What it offers Jason is to be a door-to-door environmentalist selling trees, and he does the job with a veritable shrug. He’s really the shy and hesitant type, as when at the animal shelter he’s guilted into buying Marshall’s (David Warshofsky) sketch of his young daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres), when she notes that he had put their contact info on the back, “in case you want to return it.” So instead of selling trees, he buys a used hairdryer from an old widower (Joe Putterlik) and ends up frequenting his home to listen to his life story.
Sophie, also shy and hesitant, even looking like Jason’s twin with their matching puffy hairdos, can’t overcome her anxiety and confidence issues to post even one dance video. By pure chance, she discovers Marshall’s phone number and calls him. What follows is one of the oddest yet oddly plausible phone conversations I’ve ever seen on screen. She goes to meet him the next day, ostensibly for business, but no business gets done; she goes again, and he, correctly intuiting her need to break out of her cocoon of emotional blandness, seduces her. The film here is kind, giving him a blunt and awkward technique and genuine attraction, thereby preserving his moral probity. Sophie goes back the next day, and that night she prepares to come clean to Jason before moving out.
Strictly speaking, we know nothing about Jason and Sophie except for their empty lives and emotionally flat relationship. But the film is so distinctive and eloquent in style that Richard Brody, who faulted films like Call Me By Your Name (2017) and The Florida Project (2017) for skimping on the details of their characters’ inner lives, put The Future on his list of the twenty-five best films of the new century—and at the number three spot, no less! No two real people on earth are so full of nothingness, and yet they are utterly compelling to watch as they relinquish their lives to fate and whimsy.
One important reason is Paw Paw’s voiceovers, interspersed throughout the action and accompanied by a pair of paw puppets. July deploys a scratchy, wavering voice to deliver Malickian meditations on being born a stray, being chosen for adoption, and awaiting the beginning of its new life. These scenes are backed by a joyous, transcendent score, which paves the way for an easily predicted but still dreaded ironic reversal at the end.
The final act is a wonder to contemplate. Just as Sophie is about to come clean to Jason, he pleads for one more moment of mental preparation and touches her head. Then, literalizing a joke he made at the start of the film, time stops. He goes back and forth with the talking moon (Putterlik) over whether to restart time and how, exactly, to do it. Meanwhile, time proceeds apace, and we find Sophie feeling alienated in her new relationship by too much emotional intensity from Marshall, who simply adores her. Only Gabriella sees the emotional truth, as kids are wont to do, and matter-of-factly tells Sophie to “act natural.” Her alienation is so strong that it attracts her security t-shirt, which walks itself to her new home. What with one person trying to restart time and the other dealing with getting what she wished for, neither gets to the animal shelter until two days after the set date, when, as the vet forewarned, Paw Paw has already been euthanized.
“I died. Really,” says Paw Paw in its last voiceover scene. The transcendent score is still playing, though, and coupled with a gradually overexposed shot of a sunlit window, we understand that, like Sophie, what the cat was seeking and awaiting could never have been realized in this world. This exalted emotional register gives an odd twist to the last scene, in which Sophie goes back to Jason’s place to pack her things, and he lets her spend “one night only.” They want to return to where they were before, but that way lies nothingness, a nothingness strangely distinguishable from their present nothingness. When Jason tells Sophie that there’s nothing to assent to in their relationship, she says, “OK, I’m saying OK to nothing.”
The Future is about, yes, the future, as many astute critics have noted, but it’s also about the present—the present as always colored by the future, while the future is always delimited by the present, forming an ouroborous that somehow makes both the present and the future both more and less than they were, simultaneously. Undergirding its emotions with nothingness, the film subtly shifts its emotional register into a new quadrant that currently bears no name. By affirming the difference between nothing and nothing, The Future evokes the idea of art as pure possibility.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.