How much kookiness can a film endure?
That question haunts the second feature from Miranda July, multi-media performance artist and author whose feted debut, Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005), struck just the right balance of cutesiness and emotion.
Again anatomising relationships, her follow-up sometimes bewitches, but it also bewilders in its stifling self-absorption and use of a sickly sweet feline narrator whose scratchy voice (July does the talking) makes 91 minutes of fingernails scratching blackboards sound appealing.
July’s voice grates a bit less as Sophie, half of a disconnected mid-’30s LA couple who decide to face adult responsibility by adopting poorly puss Paw-Paw.
This momentous decision made, Sophie and identikit hubby Jason (Hamish Linklater) devote one pre-cat month to the projects they never started in 15 previous years of stunted growth: she films herself dancing, he sells trees.
A soggier pair of wet dishcloths you’d struggle to find, but real anxieties bubble resonantly to the surface. There’s weight to their worries about work, love and aging, with children – or their absence – being the big unspoken in their slowly stagnating relationship.
Catch yourself ‘relating’, though, and you’ll slap yourself as July slips in extreme close-ups of Paw-Paw’s cutie-wutie wittle paws, or Sophie spouting glumly self-aware soundbites like some terminally timid teenager.
Which is a shame because, aided by Jon Brion’s off-beat score, July brings smartly surreal twists to the end stretch. A wandering T-shirt, a talking moon and tangled timelines suspend reality, exposing emotional undercurrents in magic-realist flourishes.
More surprises pepper the path to an unexpectedly moving climax, where July’s real – and implicitly self-critical – subject emerges as the fear of emptiness lurking behind indie-cute affectations.
If she’d cut the kitty quirks and targeted that emotional quick a bit sooner, The Future might not have seemed so distant.
Winningly weird or suffocated by whimsy? Magical or morose? July’s romantic fantasy of stagnation and romantic drift has depths, but they’re hidden behind walls of kookiness. The Future... is uncertain.