Statuesque blonde beauty Brit Marling seems to be carving out a place for herself as the word’s leading babe of indie semi-sci-fi think pieces. That’s not exactly a world overwhelmed with competition, but between co-writing and starring in Sound of My Voice and last summer’s Another Earth, she’s found a niche. The films are surprisingly similar beyond of a sharing a mysteriously harsh performance from Matling, both offering strange science fiction conceits with a sense of mundane reality and refusing to offer comforting closure. Two micro-budget movies into her career, Marling has already established herself as a striking screen presence, even if her twin debuts are undeniably flawed. Sound of My Voice is a modest improvement on Another Earth and it will be interesting to see if Martling will soon get swept up in the Hollywood machine or continue to create her own odd roles as an outsider.
In this collaboration with co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij, Marling plays Maggie, the baffling leader of an L.A. new age cult. The protagonists are Peter, a substitute teacher (Christopher Denham), and his burned out former Hollywood wild-child girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius), who infiltrate the cult with plans to debunk it as a hoax in a documentary. At first, that seems like an easy task when they gain access to a suburban basement through a ridiculous handshake with a hippy leader and they proceed to meet Maggie, who walks into the room clutching an oxygen tank and claiming that she can’t stomach the earth’s atmosphere since she’s from a post-apocalyptic 2054.
It all seems so silly and worth the hidden camera footage they struggle to capture. But the more time they spend listening to Maggie, the harder she becomes to dismiss. In particular, she forges an intense emotional relationship with Peter and seems wise in an otherworldly manner. The wannabe documentary filmmakers can never seem to decide if this is real or a hoax as every evocative sentence to slip out of Marling’s mouth is quickly followed by something easily dismissed (most amusingly, she’s asked to sing a song from her time and spits out a 90s pop hit too perfectly chosen to spoil here). Determining the level of the cult’s bullshit is even more challenging for the audience who also get to see tantalizing side characters like a grade school girl building mysterious statues and some sort of secret agent. Wisely, if frustratingly, Batmanglij and Marling never answer a question without raising two more in it’s place.
Sound of My Voice is a fascinating mind game that stumbles mainly because it’s vague in a way that suggests the filmmakers themselves might not have a handle on what conclusions are supposed to be drawn from the story. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of another no-budget time travel movie Primer (or even Another Earth for that matter). There’s nothing wrong with encouraging the audience to leave the theater scratching their heads, however, there’s a difference between a movie with a clear mystery to unlock and something designed by pseudo intellectuals who just, like, totally think it’s better if we don’t decide, man. It’s difficult to pin down exactly where Batmanglij and Marling fall on that spectrum, but their film works well enough that it’s worth giving them the benefit of the doubt for now. Apparently Batmanglij wants to continue the story through internet shorts, so that at least suggests he’s thought it through until the digital spin off proves otherwise.
The film is shot in the standard jittery handheld indie style, forgivable only because it’s never excessive and was clearly used out of financial necessity instead of stylistic laziness. Marling creates a fascinating character that instantly draws the viewer in without giving enough of the character away to spoil the mystery. Her chemistry with Denham is deeply compelling, but Vicius doesn’t fare quite as well playing his girlfriend who’s jealous that Marling is capable of giving him “an emotional orgasm”. Their twisted love triangle provides a necessary tension to keep the story spinning, but Vicius isn’t quite as strong of an actor as her co-leads and her limitations become all to obvious in such a small performance driven movie. Thankfully, she has the least demanding role and is able to get away with it, even if she damages things slightly.
I know I’m being very vague is describing the movie, but it’s hard to approach Sound of My Voice any other way. Giving anything away would immediately deflate the hypnotic mystery tone Batmanglij creates and the film doesn’t offer many concrete moments to latch onto, anyway. Ultimately, the appeal of the movie comes down to your feelings about this brand of head-scratching sci-fi mystery. If you like being led down a confusing trail without any sort of conventional resolution, then it’s a movie that will keep you pondering for days. However, if that sort of thing frustrates you, I can guarantee that you will be screaming at the screen like a madman after the final shot.