Neglected children of single parents, Peter (Christopher Denham, "Charlie Wilson's War," "Shutter Island") and Lorna (Nicole Vicius, who could be Deborah Kara Unger's daughter) are now a couple who hope to unveil a local cult leader as a sham in a documentary film. But Peter, whose lost his mother to a cult at thirteen, begins to fall under the spell of Maggie (Brit Marling, "Another Earth"), the woman who says she's traveled from 2054 to lead them through disaster as the 'chosen' who will follow the 'Sound of My Voice.'
Sundance 2011 was a breakthrough year for women, particularly Brit Marling, who cowrote the first two films she starred in. Unlike Elizabeth Olsen, whose outstanding "Martha Marcy May Marlene" opened in 2011 only to be followed by her second, disappointing film, "Silent House," in 2012, Marling follows 2011's "Another Earth" with another low budget sci-fier that casts her as a traveler in a film of full of ideas which is at least as good as her first.
Cowriter (with star Brit Marling)/director Zal Batmanglij makes his feature directorial debut, and demonstrates how a strong, intriguing sci-fi tale can be told with a microscopic budget. He and his cowriter plunge us right into the story, with a blindfolded Peter and Lorna being driven into the suburban garage of a totally average looking ranch house. They're handed hospital johnnies, led to a bathroom ('be thorough with the soap'), then subjected to an extended, silly handshake ritual by Klaus (Richard Wharton), their older, white bearded guide to the main event. Maggie, always seen dressed in simple but perfectly draped white robes (her first is a bed sheet), is stunning, her tale fantastic, her charisma undeniable.
Maggie has about a dozen followers who believe that she woke up underwater in a crummy hotel bathtub remembering only her name and birth date (10/31) before she was found by Klaus and identified as a 'traveler' by her tattoos of an anchor and the number 54. We're told she's allergic to almost everything in the present and her food is grown under lights. Later, she uses apples as a metaphor for poisoned ideas, applauding the first to vomit it back up as a true believer. Everyone follows but Peter, who has ingested equipment. Maggie shines her spotlight on him, pushing for answers to tough questions and Lorna is amazed to see him break down and cry. Later, he claims it was an act, but a wedge has been introduced between the two. When Maggie asks for a solo audience with Peter to ask him to bring one of his 8 year-old students to her, Peter's prepared to go all the way while Lorna calls foul.
The script is a marvel of efficiency while introducing multiple themes. We never learn how Maggie and Klaus found any of their group members, including Peter and Lorna, but it doesn't matter. The couple's back stories are quickly filled in as they rehash their first brush with their subject. When Peter has his private audience, Lorna's out with Joanne (Kandice Stroh), who surprises her with an impromptu lesson on target shooting (more shades of "Martha Marcy"). Little nuggets of information are sprinkled here and there to ponder over later. Twice, characters are introduced alone and out of nowhere - the first we come to learn is Abigail Pritchett (Avery Pohl), clearly an interesting child as she creates odd structures in the corner of her bedroom entirely of black Legos. In Peter's care at school, she writes the word 'terrorist' on the pink backpack of a classmate. The other is a middle aged Black woman (Davenia McFadden, "Hachi: A Dog's Tale"), seemingly debugging a hotel room, dropped into the action more awkwardly, but clarified soon enough. The main through line is a dissection of Maggie's methods, alternately understanding and slightly bullying, always inviting as many questions as answers. In a standout, she's cajoled into singing a song from the future. Her phrasing's a bit off, but the song is a recognizable hit from the 90's (The Cranberries 'Dreams'). With 'no disrespect,' she's questioned about this by Lam (Alvin Lam) resulting in a divides and conquer strategy when he's booted out and his girlfriend Christine (Constance Wu) looks down and stays. Batmanglij and Marling keep presenting suspicious behavior, then justifying it, all the while observing the psychology of cults.
The film has a minimum of locations - a few exteriors, that ranch house, Peter and Lorna's dingy abode and the La Brea Tar Pits for the big climax - but its the faces of the actors and their performances we remember. The camera loves Marling and she's terrific as the seductive Maggie, giving people what she divines they need, making inclusion feel special. Christopher Denham is the one with the arc, ending in a very different place than he began - he's essentially the audience's POV. Nicole Vicius is more the pragmatist, wary of the new female who may or may not be swaying her partner.
The ending is another great 'gotcha,' like "Another Earth's," which makes you reconsider what you have seen before. Like that film, "Sound of My Voice" is more a study of human nature against a sci-fi backdrop than it is a rip-roaring futuristic genre movie. If she continues in this vein, Brit Marling may be the Rod Serling of a new generation.
Robin gives "Sound of My Voice" a B.
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