Facebook is so awash in shared quotes and clever little sayings attached to graphics, ranging from heartwarmingly New Age to hipster snarky, that few make an impression beyond the time it takes to read them. Still, every now and then you’ll hit one that sticks; for me, it was one of those faux 1950s greeting cards with the slogan “Pretending to be a functional adult is so exhausting.”
I laughed, but it got me thinking: What exactly is a “functional adult”? These days it’s hard to say. The middle-class professional who just saw his pension raided and his mortgage foreclosed? The thrice-married step-mom on mood-disorder medication? The NEET liberal-arts major who’s still living in his parents’ basement five years after graduating? We flail in the waters of change, sans stability.
In “The Future” — the 2011 film by actor/director/writer Miranda July, best known for “Me and You and Everyone We Know” — we meet a 30-something couple in Los Angeles. Jason (Hamish Linklater) temps taking tech-support calls at home, while Sophie (July) teaches children’s ballet classes. They live a low-maintenance lifestyle in their cozy, ironically decorated apartment, have identical haircuts, and are so deep in their slack that they sprawl across their sofa, legs intertwined, each with their face buried in a laptop as they teasingly argue about who should get up and get a drink for the other.
Obviously, “functional” is a quite loose term these days, but we still cling to the myth that one day all the adult pieces will fall into place and we won’t feel like we’re making it up as we go along. For most people, we’re struck one day with the realization that we’ve constructed something known as “a life,” with commitments and bonds that bind more deeply than they did in one’s carefree 20s, when no situation, no relationship was so serious that one couldn’t walk on it and hit the restart button.
This, for many people, is when something known as The Midlife Crisis kicks in, and for Sophie and Jason, it involves agreeing to adopt a stray cat. The kitty, Paw-Paw, is injured, and will require a month of treatment before the couple can take it home. But the realization that they will now face years of commitment to another living, breathing creature is enough to inspire an existential crisis, and the determination to do all those things they’ve longed to do in their last month of freedom. The problem is, they don’t really have a clue as to what those might be.
The duo quit their jobs, with Jason becoming halfheartedly involved in a door-to-door environmental campaign, while awaiting some sort of magical “sign” to show him his direction in life, while Sophie becomes antsy over her own creative block and, unable to pull off a dance-video project, decides to have a random and torrid affair instead.
Some people have reacted to “The Future” with utter scorn, viewing the characters and their predicament as “hipster angst.” Those people, clearly, are the Functional Adults; while I also found Jason and Sophie a little infuriating, they were at least recognizable and sympathetic, people who were drifting through life at their own pace only to wake up one day and find themselves on the wrong side of the achievement curve. July’s Sophie, in particular, with her security blanket and confused indecisiveness, will drive Functional viewers up the wall, but anyone who’s enjoyed a Julie Delpy or Woody Allen film should be just fine.
Despite being glaringly obvious, one thing that has remained largely uncommented upon with this film is its sexual politics and jaundiced view of female desire. Jason is very much the postfeminism new male: sweet, sensitive, treating his partner as an equal, and not especially interested in viewing her in a sexual way. (If he were Japanese, he’d be called a “herbivore.”) Yet Sophie finds herself inexplicably attracted to the alpha male who isn’t afraid to have a career, father a child, or tell her to drop her panties so he can take her from behind. Is this some sort of failure of nerve by Sophie, a betrayal of her ideals and partner and belief in her own ability to cut it on her own? Is the bohemian free spirit running to the security of a Functional Adult who can provide for her, despite being creepily controlling? Or is it that this is what she had always wanted but was afraid to admit?
It remains an open question as the film dissolves into a magic realist gesture worthy of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (a feeling reinforced by the Jon Brion soundtrack). Crazy stuff happens, hearts are broken, and the only real epiphany is that however scary, life goes on.