The Future (2011)

One thing I noticed while drafting a potential Best Films of the 2010s list in recent weeks is how little the twee aesthetic means to me at this point in time. As a budding film nerd (and pretentious college campus twerp) in the 2000s, twee was the exact modernized introduction to the capital-c Cinema sensibilities of the French New Wave that I needed in my life. I even still appreciate the aesthetic to this day (if not only for nostalgia’s sake), but it’s now something I can apparently live without. Twee heavy-hitters like Wes Anderson & Michel Gondry released excellent films in the 2010s that doubled down on the visual fussiness & whimsical melancholy that made them famous in the previous decade. Smaller pictures from new voices like Girl Asleep & I Lost My Body even strived to push the sensibility into fresh, exciting directions. Yet, I can’t find a place for the twee aesthetic on my list of my favorite films of the 2010s. There just wasn’t anything especially urgent or resonant about its presence on the pop culture landscape that decade. The closest any title comes to touching on that end of precious cinematic melancholy that I’d consider best-of-the-decade material is Miranda July’s sophomore feature, The Future. And even that film feels more like a post-twee cultural autopsy more than it does like a genuine twee specimen.

If the heart-on-sleeve earnestness, despondent whimsy, and pastel-tinted visual fussiness of July’s debut Me and You and Everyone We Know operates as a genuine entry in the twee canon, her follow-up feels like a breakthrough to a post-twee world. With nearly a decade’s worth of retrospect behind it, The Future now plays like the official, miserable onscreen death of Twee Whimsy. This time-obsessed breakup drama for a pair of listless thirty-somethings captures that post-youth stare in the mirror when you first realize you’re not special and that life is largely pointless & devoid of magic. It’s a painful but necessary rite of passage, one that directly mirrors my own experience with wonder & self-worth over the past ten years. Curiously, it’s also a breakthrough that seems to be lost on most viewers, who apparently see the move as more of the same held over from July’s debut. It’s fascinating to see on Letterboxd that a lot of people view The Future purely as self-absorbed hipster quirk, when that’s the exact subject the film coldly picks apart in a despondent autopsy. There’s something about July in particular that sets off more cynical audiences’ Bullshit Detectors before she’s even allowed to get her point across, which is a total shame, since she taps into private, internal triumphs & crises no one else thinks to put onscreen. In general, I don’t think the (loosely defined) twee genre ever got enough credit for how dark & melancholy it was just under its meticulously curated surface, and Miranda July is maybe the most undervalued dabbler in despair to be dismissed in that way.

The biggest roadblock that July’s skeptics struggle with in The Future is its choice of narrator: a cat. What could be cutesier than a talking housecat narrating the story of a young couple’s struggle with mid-30s ennui? Except, the execution isn’t cute at all. The cat is ill and lonely in captivity at a “kill shelter,” waiting for the couple (played by Hamish Linklater & July herself) to adopt it before it’s euthanization day arrives. That rescue mission never comes to fruition, though, as the couple becomes so absorbed in their own increasingly meaningless bullshit that they forget about the promise they made to that pitiful beast. Likewise, a magical realist interaction with The Moon where a character stops time to delay an imminent break-up argument and converses with the celestial body in that frozen moment sounds like saccharine whimsy in the abstract. In practice, it’s a devastating illustration of how a moment of heartbreak can leave you feeling as if you’re struck in time. There is no magic in this world, and as soon as the ruse of being able to pause time to prevent hurt is lifted, it’s revealed that weeks have gone by without you. The world has moved on; you are not its center. In the twee era of mildly magical romances like Amélie & The Science of Sleep, these characters’ love for each other might have broken through the restrictions of physics & time to save the proverbial cat. In The Future, magic is dead, and all hope is lost. All we can do is bide our time until we are old enough to die – preferably with company we can stomach.

If your mid-30s sounds like too early in a lifespan to give up & wait for death, don’t worry; the movie’s willing to make fun of that premature panic too. Faced with the responsibility of adopting an ill housecat, our central couple—a work-from-home tech support dweeb and an overqualified children’s dance instructor—trigger their shared mid-life crisis at least a decade too early. Their first-act freak-out that life is essentially over at 35 and everything to follow is “loose change” is eventually treated as a naïve oversimplification and, essentially, a bratty temper tantrum. As long as you live to old age instead of perishing prematurely, there’s plenty of time to live after your youth shrivels up. Too much, even. The realization they suffer here is more that their options & freedoms are becoming severely more limited as they settle into the grooves of adulthood. Feeling that they have been “gearing up to do something incredible for the last fifteen years,” they suddenly realize that nothing incredible is ever likely to happen. They’re doomed to be mundane, unspecial, and purposeless until they die (a very long time from now): the same curse that afflicts the overwhelming majority of humanity. Any attempts to shake off their limiting responsibilities as budding adults to instead pursue “Fulfilling Experiences” only alienate them further from the one comfort they have in this meaningless, increasingly isolating world: each other. Magical escapes from their mundane doom become less fulfilling with time, operating more as distractions than life-changing epiphanies. Few of us will ever amount to much or affect any large-scale change in the world, which is the exact tragic realization that gradually dawns on this couple on the verge of dissolution.

If the title of this film suggests that it’s attempting to predict the actual future, I’d say July was fairly successful. Its varied themes of Climate Change defeatism, post-Obama disillusionment, the pressure to turn self-gratifying art projects to public displays, and the isolating effect of social media obsession all feel accurate to how the 2010s played out in the long run – give or take a flip phone to smartphone upgrade. Extratextually, the film also felt like a prescient death knell for the twee sensibility’s importance on the pop culture landscape. The aesthetic’s ghost continued on in twee-as-fuck films to follow like Moonrise Kingdom, God Help The Girl, and even my beloved Paddington 2, but July had already given it a proper burial in The Future. It’s a film that will alienate many a cynical grump who stumbles across it by accident – if not as soon as its cat-narrated intro, then at least by the time July is doing an interpretive dance about vulnerability to a Beach House track. Still, for those more in tune with the heart-on-sleeve melancholy of the twee sensibility (or its equally ill-defined “mumblecore” aftershock), it really does feel like the end of an era in wide-eyed wonder & hope for what’s to come. It’s a shame that it’s taken July so long to follow up this soul-crushing bummer with a third feature, as I’m very curious to find out what adulthood milestone is going to break my heart next.

-Brandon Ledet

While We’re Young (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

As I explained in my review for Mistress America, Noah Baumbach is remarkably talented at making me feel like shit while also enjoying a good, old fashioned nervous laugh. I ended up appreciating Mistress America a great deal more than I did Baumbach’s earlier release from this year, While We’re Young, but the pair did work together nicely as two sides of the same coin. In Mistress America, we’re swept away by & quickly grow disgusted with a pretentious free spirit who lives a frivolous life in the magical version of NYC that only exists on film. In While We’re Young, on the other hand, we’re similarly disgusted by a go-getter of a young documentarian who embodies every disdainful idea about what it means to be a hipster to an infuriating degree in an all too real NYC we wish didn’t exist in real life. Part of the reason While We’re Young‘s self-absorbed sociopath of a subject doesn’t excite the audience in the same way Mistress America‘s does is that he feels more like a carefully selected collection of quirks than a real person, never really evolving beyond much of a caricature, so your feelings towards him are much less complex. He is exceedingly fun to hate, though. Baumbach at least got that part right.

The sycophant in question is Jamie, a role Adam Driver plays like a bizarro world version of Joey Ramone where everything he does & says, right down to the basic motions of his limbs, are vile affectations worthy of vitriol (just look at the way he holds beer cans if you’re looking for something to angry up your blood). Jamie’s latest victims/”friends” are a middle aged couple played by Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts, who are attracted to the excitement of meeting younger versions of themselves in Jamie & his girlfriend Darby (Amanda Seyfried) because it allows them to escape a dull life where their contemporaries use peer pressure to convince them to do things like have children instead of younger-oriented fare like experimenting with drugs. In the compare/contrast portion of the movie, Jamie’s victims are portrayed as Gen-X squares who watch digital television & listen to CDs instead of enjoying the finer antiquated formats of vinyl records & VHS tapes. Despite how things may seem on the surface here, however, the true difference between the two couples is that the older set is a normal pair of human beings while the younger ones are a curated set of dishonest affectations.

While We’re Young is most alive when it aims for cringe comedy in the never-ending gauntlet of indignities that accompany a midlife crisis. Once Stiller & Watt’s older couple start dressing younger, wearing stupid hats (including indoors! at the dinner table! yuck!), tripping & puking at an phony shaman’s apartment, and failing miserably to look competent at hip-hop dance classes, the movie not only earns most of its genuine laughs, it also effectively depicts modern life in NYC to be a nightmarish hellscape. That’s not to say that Baumbach goes anywhere near the jugular here. If you’re looking for a full-on scathing takedown of the Brooklynite hipster, you’re much better off watching the Tim Heidecker vehicle The Comedy. The saddest moments in While We’re Young mostly amount to minor embarrassments & the distinct feeling of losing touch with old friends while chasing new ones. There may be a bitter remark here or there about The Baby Cult of new parents or rampant cellphone addiction or how the millennial generation are a collection of “entitled little brats”, but for the most part the film is well aware that it’s being an old curmudgeon in these moments. That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of venom in the portrayal of Adam Driver’s horrendous hipster abomination Jamie, who is at one point described with the phrase, “It’s like he once saw a sincere person & has been imitating them ever since.” The movie is ostensibly willing to let him off the hook for his transgressions, though. In the end what Jamie is up to doesn’t really matter, because he’s young & frivolous. It’s the emotional journey of the film’s middle aged characters that carry most of the film’s heart, which makes for a serviceable cringe comedy & lightly romantic indie drama depending on the scene in question. It’s nowhere near the forceful impact of the more pointed Mistress America, but While We’re Young is another success for Baumbach nonetheless.

-Brandon Ledet