Director Zal Batmanglij and his co-writer and star Brit Marling offer a welcome alternative to conventional coming of age stories or navel-gazing opuses with a story about a couple whose commitment to one another is tested after they infiltrate a mysterious cult. Sound of My Voice offers promise and pay off at the same time. Star and writer Brit Marling is having a rare double-whammy of a debut; it's the sort that gives producers of independent films hope for their future while supplying studios with a new name for their casting shortlists. Although the film won't likely demolish any box office records when Fox Searchlight releases it in late summer, almost-rhapsodic festival buzz should give Sound of My Voice solid commercial prospects before itself becoming a cult sensation on home video.
The film stars Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as Peter and Lorna, a pair of aspiring documentarians who go undercover to see the inner workings of a mysterious Los Angeles-based cult. At first, both of them are merely content to penetrate the organization's rigorous screening process, especially when some of their recording devices are almost discovered. But their solidarity soon disintegrates as Maggie (Marling), the cult's charismatic leader, taps into some of Peter's deeper insecurities (meanwhile, he insists to Lorna that he is as resilient as ever). Despite some inconsistencies in Maggie's "origin story," Peter slowly begins to succumb to her charms, but it isn't until Maggie asks him for something dangerous that Lorna has to decide what she truly believes, and what that means she must do for both their sakes.
Although there are snippets of backstory and a full-fledged mythic tale of creation for Maggie, what's most interesting about Sound of My Voice is how spartan the film is with its details—that terseness creates a lot of intrigue. Batmanglij and Marling unveil the world to the characters and the audience simultaneously, giving us as much information as Lorna and Peter get, not simply to create a sense of identification, but also to provoke. They tap into a deep anxiety of the unknown as much with what they reveal as what they don't.
Meanwhile, the film's emotional core is not merely cemented together with great, measured writing, but with performances equal to that writing's ambiguity and intensity. Certainly the skeptic-who-becomes-a-convert characterization can lend itself to cliché, but both Denham and Vicius are equal to the task of showing us that Peter and Lorna are subtly changing as a response to their experiences in the cult. That said, Marling is so magnetic as Maggie that either character's submission to her would feel completely understandable; as a screenwriter she provides us with cloudy truths, but Marling's performance is effortless, irrefutable certainty. Although her actual motives are left obscure, Marling gives Maggie authority, and perhaps most importantly, a precisely ingratiating charm that convinces us her followers might consider obedience to be more of a favor to them than fealty to her demands.
The use of illness to dissuade the cult's followers from probing deeper or to urge protectiveness towards the supposedly vulnerable, anachronistic creature at the center of the commune is another of the film's brilliant manipulations. These are the sorts of flourishes that distinguish this film from the landscape of debuts that, by comparison, feel as telegraphed and clichéd as a studio tentpole. It doesn't just take a good story, or even an original one; it takes vision to bring it to life. And if Sound of My Voice is any indication of what's to come from them, Marling and Batmanglij should probably prepare themselves for a cult of devout followers offscreen.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Screenwriters: Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij
Producers: Shelley Surpin, Hans C. Ritter, Brit Marling
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: Unset