This article contains spoilers for The Future (2012).
Gabriella (Isabelle Acres) digs a hole in the ground. Sophie (Miranda July), an unemployed dance teacher in her 30s, looks at her. Gabriella instructs her to act naturally and turn around to wave to Marshall (David Warshofsky), a man twenty years older than her with whom she is having an affair. After successfully acting natural, Marshall looks at her, telling her to stay still, as “the way [she looks] in the light; it’s perfect.” At that moment, Sophie looks almost happy – all she has to do is stay still forever. She forgets how she quit her job, her boyfriend, and the world around her. Meanwhile, Gabriella, Marshall’s daughter, digs her own grave in front of them.
Miranda July’s The Future (2012) is a film about the future and the anticipation for it. It’s a film centered around the pleasure of waiting for an ever-receding future, the seductive charm of clairvoyance, and the playful illusion that one day, the future will proudly announce its arrival and the present will never be mentioned again. Within this charm is a death drive that arises from the characters’ inability to make sense of their present. They hold on to the illusion that the future represents a material separation from the present and uphold it constantly by permanently resigning themselves to the anticipation of the future while avoiding the actual future. In this world, the greatest power belongs to the person who can stop time forever, thus allowing everyone to anticipate the future forever; one forgets that it is only in death that time stops.
Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie are a couple in their 30s planning to adopt an injured cat. Jason is a customer service representative and Sophie is a dance teacher for kids. Their condition seems stereotypically millennial: they dislike their jobs, live in an apartment with neighbors they never see, and both have a never-ending deadpan irony that can only arise from the exhaustion of existing. When they finally have a firm date for their cat’s adoption, they realize their lives are about to “end.” With the month of life they have left, they decide to finally “do something” with their lives: Jason becomes a canvasser for a nonprofit trying to stop climate change by planting trees, while Sophie tries to go viral on YouTube by posting dance videos. As they are both gradually met with failure in their new endeavors, Sophie isolates herself more and more from Jason out of fear of disappointing him, and begins an affair with an older man.
Sophie’s desire to go viral on YouTube is motivated by the success of the receptionist at her former dance studio, who dances to fast-paced songs. Sophie’s desire to “do something” is ill-fated from the very beginning, as she chooses to dance to “Master of None” by Beach House, hardly a dance song. As the receptionist makes hit after hit, Sophie isn’t able to dance for more than ten seconds in front of the camera as she stares down the emptiness of a month wasted. In an attempt to make her life her own in her final month of freedom, she makes it someone else’s.
One wonders why Sophie would isolate herself from Jason just because she isn’t going viral. It seems bizarre, but no less bizarre than the idea that one’s life is about to end because of a cat adoption. But as she goes deeper into her rabbit hole, she convinces herself that her personhood depends on the success of her dances. She convinced herself that Jason and her friends, who Jason encourages her to reach out to, will never forgive her for a failure they don’t even know about.
In Sophie’s self-imposed loneliness, July brilliantly captures the genealogy of loneliness today. For Sophie, Jason’s relationship with her depends on what she does and what she has. Without her job, she must do something to fill the void. Under this context, what is at stake with the YouTube videos is not vanity, but the very existence of the love between Sophie and Jason. Sophie has convinced herself that if she produces nothing, the love between them will disappear. To win Jason’s love back, she must isolate herself from him until she has done something, at which point, their love will resume. In one of the most heartbreaking parts of the film, Sophie eagerly buys three trees from Jason’s nonprofit. Jason, not understanding the ontological implications of Sophie’s desire, says he’ll get to it later. For Jason, their relationship has always transcended any transaction and he finds no significance in this interaction. For Sophie, this effort to make herself useful to Jason by buying his trees is one last chance to produce something again, and in doing so preserve their love. Shortly after her failure, she begins her affair.
It is not difficult to draw the connection between Sophie’s isolation and our broader isolation today. I think of all the ways that we (and Sophie) view love to be the result of a set of characteristics that one has, a kind of mathematical formula to be solved. What is particularly painful about our culture today is that it feels as if the most well-intentioned spaces are precisely where this view has taken over.
I think self-help therapy, originally intended to better the interpersonal interactions of our everyday life, has now been transformed into an isolationist manifesto that insists you must shun any relationship from your life in which there is any pain or discomfort. I think of how even institutional formal channels of therapy have been transformed into a kind of purity test. Therapy has become something one partakes in to prove they are indeed deserving of love; therapy has become a currency for love. I think of all the ways that “working on yourself” has become a religion: it is one’s responsibility to isolate oneself until one is ready to care about other people again. I think of all the ruthless boundary-setting (ie. Jonah Hill’s past relationship) branded in this self-care language that insists if a partner does one thing on your list of boundaries, they do not love you and it is your responsibility to never speak to them again. Therapy, “working on yourself,” and boundary-setting have become tools that we use to isolate ourselves further and further, ensuring that the future, in which we will inevitably fall in love with others and allow ourselves to be loved, will never occur.
None of this is to say that therapy, “working on yourself,” or boundary-setting cannot be tremendously helpful, but if we want to imagine love as more than a result of a certain set of characteristics that one has and a certain set of things that one does, then we will admit that none of these things fundamentally change how lovable we are as a person. No matter how many sessions of therapy we go to, we are still guaranteed to hurt the ones that we love. The pain and discomfort of our most intimate relationships will continue on.
The solution is not to isolate ourselves as Sophie does; the solution is to choose to love despite knowing all of this. And more difficult, the solution is to allow ourselves to be loved without insisting on finding reasons for the love of others because those reasons probably didn’t ever exist in the first place. To do so is to acknowledge the perversity of ideologies designed to isolate ourselves and to realize that our only chance at saving ourselves is, and has always been, the people around us.
At a moment when Sophie finally dances beautifully to “Master of None,” she isn’t in front of the camera; there is no one watching her. She had just helped Gabrielle out of the grave that she intended to sleep in and tucked her into bed. After this moment of empathy, she puts on a large shirt that covers her face and body and moves formlessly across the room. It doesn’t matter that Marshall isn’t looking at her, or that one can’t recognize who the person underneath the shirt is — all that matters in that moment is that she exists. That is enough.
The Future is a brilliant film that captures the loneliness of a generation. July’s humanistic commentary on climate change is strikingly original and profound as well. The magical realism, the personification of the cat through theatrical asides, and its deep empathy with its characters should have made this film a generation-defining film, rather than a box-office failure. It’s a film that is truly devastating; it should make you feel horrible after watching it. It’s the horror arising from the realization that the unpredictability of our future cannot be an excuse for us to be desperate or vengeful, but rather it is precisely because of that unpredictability that we must choose to love, we must choose to forgive, and we must choose to live.