Miranda July, left, and Hamish Linklater in the movie "The Future." (Associated Press )
Succinctly summing up the prodigious artistic output of Miranda July isn't easy.
An author, fine artist, creator of performance pieces and maker of short films (not to mention icon and crush-object for charmingly awkward, artistically inclined young women and the men who pursue them), she made her debut as a feature film director with "Me and You and Everyone We Know." Winner of a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and four prizes that year in Cannes, the movie went on to be a modest art-house hit.
In the time since "Me and You" was released, July has, among other projects, published a book of short stories titled "No One Belongs Here More Than You," staged a performance piece called "Things We Don't Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About" and created a series of sculptures for the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Now July is about to debut her film "The Future" at Sundance. It has an enviable premiere slot Friday night in the festival's biggest venue and will play in competition at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival. But she's also in a bit of an awkward position: To some she's a returning superstar; to others, hitting the festival trail looking for a sale makes her, in her own words, "just like every indie filmmaker going to Sundance." And then there will be those among the movie-going crowd who will wonder what she's been up to in the last five years.
"It wasn't a break from my work," said July, 36, sipping tea one recent morning in a coffeehouse not far from her home in Los Angeles, explaining that she increasingly sees the connections in her output across different mediums, not the differences.
"The book came out, and I had to do a press tour to other countries, and that really felt like the follow-up to the movie," she said, "because every country I went for the book they talked about the movie and compared and contrasted the two.… If I had just gone from the first movie to this one I would also ask, 'How did I get there?' So all these stages in between are how I can make sense of it. But I don't expect anyone else to follow that."
The film follows a couple, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), who having decided to adopt a sick cat, are told they will have to wait a month to pick it up. Believing their lives will change with the arrival of this new responsibility, they decide to quit their jobs, disconnect from the Internet and rediscover their true dreams. Then the very things meant to bring them closer begin to drive them apart.
"The Future" fits into the larger continuum of July's work but may come as a shock to audiences who know her only from "Me and You and Everyone We Know." Her new film focuses on a few characters, where "Me and You" had an expansive ensemble, and while her previous feature had a naive hopefulness, "The Future" is more dark and emotionally thorny.
"You can have that sense of expectation with the sophomore effort," said producer Gina Kwon, who also worked on July's first feature. "Is it disappointing? Is it just a version of what they did on the first one? I feel what's exciting about this one is it is really pushing into new territory."
Kwon added: "What I like is she always shines a light on some of the dark corners of human experience but with a funny recognition of oneself: 'Wow, I do spend too much time on the Internet instead of talking to my spouse.'"
The elements that make "The Future" unique — it is narrated by the cat, has a complex, sci-fi-ish time-loop structure and endearingly off-kilter interludes of July's character attempting to dance — might also prove challenging to potential buyers and audiences.
July herself is uncertain how to sum up the unsettling feelings stirred by her idiosyncratic film.
"The first one, I didn't have a great time describing that one either. In fact I mostly just started repeating what everyone else said," July said. "So I'm kind of waiting for that on this one, to get a consensus. Essentially every time I'm trying to make something about things that are hard to put into words, like the feelings that slip between the cracks. So I feel it's a good sign for me personally if I don't have the words because that's why I made the movie."