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

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Although she’s been working steadily since the buzzy “mumblecore” movement that established a new standard tone for microbudget indie cinema over a decade ago, 2018 is proving to be a breakout year for Josephine Decker. This started for me, personally, when Decker’s collaborative, self-loathing documentary Flames tore my brain in half in its emotionally volatile record of a toxic, years-long romantic detangling. Her much larger cultural breakout arrived later in a drama where she was more of the auteurist voice: the festival-circuit darling Madeline’s Madeline. What’s impressive about Madeline’s Madeline as a follow-up to Flames is that it maintains the documentary’s emotional volatility and damning self-reflection on the nature & tortures of its own medium, while branching off into the realm of fictional drama. It didn’t hit me quite as hard in the gut as Flames did (perhaps because I was braced for impact this second round in the ring with Decker, whereas I was caught off-guard for the first bout), but Madeline’s Madeline is just as heart-achingly confrontational in its emotional honesty and just as complexly mapped out in its engagement with its own medium as an artform. Decker may have been active and in-plain-sight in both theatre & cinema for at least the last decade solid, but in just two films 2018 has been the year when she set a staggeringly high expectation for the form-breaking phenomena she can achieve on the screen.

Teenage newcomer Helena Howard stars as the titular Madeline, a mentally ill high school student who finds a brief utopian respite in an avant-garde NYC theatre troupe, before that artistic safe space becomes just as messy & volatile as her home-life & her internal psyche. Her home-life crisis is mostly anchored to her relationship with her dangerously high-strung mother (played by Miranda July), a conflict that often erupts into physical violence. As she coldly rejects one mother’s affections at home, Madeline seeks a new motherly figure in her theatre director (played by Molly Parker). This relationship also sours when the play they’re collaborating on with their troupe mutates into a sinister meta-drama about Madeline’s “real” home-life. Madeline’s discomfort with her real-life domestic conflicts being exploited for Art is complicated by the film’s exponential detachment from realty, where the divisions between Art & “reality” become blurred to the point of effective obliteration. A spiritual descendent of Charlie Kauffman projects like Synecdoche, New York or Michel Gondry’s “Bachelorette” video for Björk, Madeline’s Madeline’s echoing of the artifice of theatre in the “The world’s a stage” artifice of real life folds the plot in on itself so many times that it’s near impossible to distinguish what’s “really” happening from what’s just in our protagonist’s head. There’s a clear three-way war that develops between Howard, July, and Parker’s characters, but everything else on the screen is highly subjective to personal interpretation.

This immersion in theatre & artificiality is an immediate cornerstone of the text, as Madeline finds comfort in her troupe’s exercises of getting lost in character work. This starts innocently enough when she’s pretending to be a cat, a turtle, or a pig, but concerns about whether she’s being a sea turtle or “a woman playing a sea turtle” eventually give way to much more violent crises of perception & reality. Madeline has no appetite, is prone to bursts of physical violence, and suffers auditory hallucinations of constant, rhythmic whispers. She’s already a blatantly untrustworthy narrator, then, which Decker chooses to amplify by immersing the audience in her POV on an almost subliminal level. The insular sound design & detail-obsessed photography of the film is so personal to Madeline’s sensory experiences that any “What’s really happening?” narrative concerns are beside the point beyond how they relate to Madeline’s emotional state. Its immersive POV falls closer to the anxiety-driven horrors of Krisha more than the eerie beauty of The Fits, as what Madeline’s feeling is often frustration & an urge to lash out. Her relationships with her director & her mother gradually sync-up with her relationship to theatre, as art itself becomes the weapon she uses to lash out in her all-out war with her dual parental figures (who also wage their own war on each other through theatre). By the time the whole conflict reaches its climax in a Tune-Yards reminiscent performance art piece on an art instillation set, theatre itself becomes both the battlefield & the weapon, whereas it starts the film as a safe-space sanctuary.

The tones & methods of collaborative theatre seem to be a guiding force in Decker’s work, perhaps best represented in the presence of Miranda July (whose undervalued film The Future frequently feels like an influence here) and Sutina Mani (whose work in Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone is a more playful take on a similar avant-garde performance art aesthetic). However, by the time the film directly calls itself out for daring to tell the inner life of another person’s story (across barriers like race, mental health, and life experience), I get the exact same form-breaking self-reflection vibe that Decker (again, collaboratively) brought to the screen in Flames. In just the two releases she’s had this year, she’s established a very distinct, often menacing tone of artistic & emotional honesty that’s just as admirably staged as it is emotionally ugly & upsetting. This film wasn’t my personal favorite of the pair, but I believe both are worth an engaged, self-reflective look. I also believe Decker’s trajectory indicates there are more form-breaking freakouts to come, and soon.

-Brandon Ledet