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With time-shifted paradigms, two new films take unconventional looks at relationships

"The Future " Grade: B+, "Bellflower," Grade B

Charles Ealy
Performance artist Miranda July directs 'The Future' and also stars in the film, opposite Hamish Linklater.

Two low-budget independent movies, "The Future" and "Bellflower," come to Austin this weekend with idiosyncratic looks at love and relationships.

Both movies have unconventional protagonists. Both feature time shifts. Both have moments where viewers might wonder what's real and what's not. Both revel in ambiguity. And both make it clear that love is never easy.

For those who haven't heard, "The Future" features a quirky talking cat, Paw-Paw, who's undergoing medical treatment at an animal shelter and waiting for a promised adoption. But the impending adoption causes the prospective parents all sorts of crises. What will they do once they have the responsibility of a cat? Will their lives change forever? Shouldn't they quit their jobs and have freedom in the month leading up to the adoption?

"Bellflower," at first, seems more conventional, with a Los Angeles slacker named Woodrow who's obsessed with "Mad Max" movies. With his buddy Aiden (Tyler Dawson), he builds flame throwers and works on a tanklike car as he prepares for the apocalypse. But then he falls for a woman who beats him at a cricket-eating contest, and an unexpected romance begins.

Well-known, multitalented performance artist Miranda July directs and stars as Sophie in the highly personal, inventive "The Future." Hamish Linklater plays her boyfriend Jason, who seems to match Sophie in personal quirkiness that borders on preciousness.

The movie opens with Sophie and Jason sitting on a couch, each cradling a laptop and paying more attention to the Internet than to each other. They appear to be in love. But they're also annoying in their lackadaisical delusions. Jason thinks he can stop time. Sophie is convinced that she can turn on the water tap in the kitchen, without getting up.

Both have a semblance of self-awareness, having entered their 30s without ever having accomplished much. She teaches ballet to kids. He provides telephone technical help to frustrated computer users. But neither Sophie nor Jason is satisfied. So both take off on various adventures before the cat adoption.

Sophie wants to be watched - and presumably appreciated. She wants to be a dance artist, rather than a dance teacher. So she promises her friends that she'll post an interpretive dance on YouTube for the next 30 days. Her attempts to fulfill this promise are both amusing and heartbreaking.

Jason, meanwhile, decides to help the planet by going door-to-door, trying to get people to plant trees.

As you might expect, neither effort turns out as expected, and Sophie ends up making a decision that threatens to end the relationship. Along the way, Jason tries to prevent the breakup by stopping time and talking to the moon, which talks back.

The cat talks, too, and begins to go into a depression after realizing that the human saviors might not fulfill their promise.

All of this is a parable, of course, for unfulfilled love, for unfulfilled expectations, for an adulthood based more on compromise than the art of invention.

July walks a fine line between being irritating and amazing. But she manages to astonish in one particular scene involving a very large T-shirt. It's a brilliant, introspective piece of interpretation, which makes the rest of the movie worthwhile.

Evan Glodell, who directs and stars in "Bellflower," takes even bigger risks. His Woodrow is goofily charming at first. He's clearly a manchild who obsesses over dangerous toys and is far too interested in "Mad Max."

His friendship with Aiden borders on homoeroticism, just like some of the scenes involving "Mad Max's" Lord Humungus and his fawning, leather-clad hoodlums. But Woodrow starts distancing himself from Aiden when he meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Before the two square off in a cricket-eating contest, she promises to kick his butt. And he's just dim enough not to realize she means it.

Still, the relationship starts off promising. On their first date in L.A., she says she doesn't want to go to eat anywhere nice. Instead, she wants Woodrow to take her to the scariest, dirtiest restaurant he has even seen. Woodrow agrees, and the two hop in a Volvo (irony intended) and head for West Texas.

The unconventional love story, however, takes a big turn in the middle of the movie, when the relationship starts to unravel. Violence erupts. And not just any kind of violence. Woodrow, it seems, is going through his own romantic apocalypse, and he's very happy that he has a spare flamethrower to help him seek revenge.

"The Future" comes from a quirky, offbeat mind. So does "Bellflower." But "The Future" eschews violence. The characters are too passive for such things. They're adrift in modern angst.

"Bellflower" takes a darker approach, and rather than dealing with malaise, it explores severe hurt.

Like July, Glodell keeps you guessing about whether certain scenes are real or imagined. But both "The Future" and "Bellflower" take us down unexpected roads of romantic pain. They're products of the heart and mind.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931