First of all let me confess that I'm a sucker for a cute, sad little kitten, especially one with a bum leg; like little Paw Paw, a miserable shelter stray with renal problems and a tiny cast, whom I found the most appealing character for much of Miranda July's odd, affecting movie. As it delivers its heartbreaking stream-of-consciousness narration in a sad kitten voice (provided by July, it sounds like the kid saying "Red rum" in The Shining), pondering "the darkness it is inappropriate to talk about," my hostility and resistance to the self-obsessed human protagonists — the estranged couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) — lifted. The cat keeps one engaged until July's initially twee-seeming sensibility coalesces into a genuine, if peculiar, mood of tragedy.
But first one must reckon with Sophie and Jason, first seen facing each other on a sofa, gazing into their laptops (the modern substitute for a navel), discussing with bruised, affectless voices hypothetical ways to get a glass of water without getting up. In their 30s, they are much too old for such puerile uselessness. And though they share the same haircuts, ennui, and narcissism, they are otherwise disconnected.
Sophie, shown at her part-time job teaching toddlers how to hop, realizes that none of her dreams of becoming a dancer are going to come true. Nor does Jason have much hope of advancing beyond his job giving online IT support. So instead of resorting to the traditional panacea of having a child to salve a hopeless relationship and fill the awkward emptiness, they decide to adopt a kitten — poor, philosophical voiceover narrator Paw Paw.
Unfortunately they have to wait 30 days before they can pick the cat up. In the meantime, pressured perhaps by the impending responsibility and the threat of another consciousness impinging on their own, they lose control. Jason drops everything, wanders around aimlessly in search of inspiration, and, like Catherine Keener's character in Please Give, engages in futile charity, canvassing for an environmental organization — of which it turns out he's the only member. And Sophie, like a 21st-century version of the leotard-clad artiste in the Jules Feiffer cartoons, struggles to create a self-expressive dance for YouTube. Stymied, she randomly stumbles on the phone number of Marshall (David Warshofsky), a total stranger, and gives him a call.
Then things get strange, if occasionally strained. Some of the bits — such as Sophie stretching a yellow T-shirt into a body-covering cocoon, or a little girl digging holes in a yard — seem like undeveloped performance pieces. Others, less obvious, are visually striking and inexplicably moving, partaking more of a David Lynch weirdness than a Lily Tomlin whimsy. Ultimately the film becomes downright mystical, culminating in a more existentially disturbing variation on the time stoppage stunt in The Adjustment Bureau — by way of Goodnight, Moon.
Somewhere along the way Sophie and Jason shed their annoying inconsequentiality and self-absorption and achieve genuine pathos. They confront the void of the future, in which they must shake off infantilism and face the responsibility of growing up, their only clarity coming from a tiny spark of awareness waiting in a cage.