Co-writer and star of the stunning Sound of My Voice, Brit Marling has been poised to break out for over a year now. Marling is one of two emerging “it girl” female stars that lit up the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, sharing the honor with Elizabeth Olsen (who, like Marling, appeared in two films that year, Silent House and the infinitely better Martha Marcy May Marlene). Marling, of course, has a leg up on the apparent competition, as she has also co-written both of her starring vehicles with their respective directors. While her other Sundance film, Another Earth, was not met with as much acclaim as SOMV (either at the festival or in its own limited release), the two form compelling companion pieces, particularly with the knowledge that Marling wrote them at the same time – she’d write Another Earth in the morning with Mike Cahill, dedicating her evenings to SOMV and Zal Batmanglij.
Both Sound of My Voice and Another Earth focus on people who are looking for something to alleviate them from the pain present in their daily lives, but while Another Earth relies on the introduction of an entirely new planet to drive its narrative, SOMV instead centers on the vast expanses that exist in single human beings. It is not just a better film than Another Earth, it is a film that is exceedingly accomplished, confounding, and consuming beyond just basic comparisons. Wrapped in a tidy 85-minute package, Batmanglij and Marling have created their own world, mythology, and a complex character worthy of her own following.
The film stars Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as Peter and Lorna, a young documentarian couple who are attempting to break into Maggie’s (Marling) local Los Angeles area cult. Peter and Lorna are determined to document their findings and experiences to craft into a final film that will out Maggie as a fraud. Maggie has not gathered her followers with any kind of traditional cultic rubric, she’s made them believe that she is from the future, a time-traveler from the year 2054 who has returned to 2011 to find and educate people who will end up surviving a series of catastrophic events that have made Maggie’s world very different from our own. For the sake of the film, Peter and Lorna’s immersion appears to be immediate, with Batmanglij and Marling wisely skating over the activities that have led to their initiation into the cult, as Sound of My Voice picks up on the very night that the pair are set to finally meet (with other new recruits) the mysterious Maggie.
Previously, the pair’s contact has been primarily with Maggie’s keeper Klaus (Richard Wharton), who maintains that he was the one who sought out Maggie, found her, and helped restore her memories of her life and her time-traveling. Klaus confides that Maggie is ill, as her body is not suited for our current environment (one of the film’s tantalizing hints about what kind of tragedy befalls the world before Maggie was born). She requires an oxygen tube, freshly grown food, and constant rest – even leaving the house for brief trips is advised against, though Maggie reveals herself to be much less confined (or interested in being confined) than Klaus is. Maggie’s multi-faceted personality is one of the great surprises of the film, and something that Batmanglij and Marling weave in over time for maximum impact. Maggie is soothing, Maggie is terrifying, Maggie is giddy and young and a bit silly, Maggie can command a room with a wave of her hand. This is the role that announces Marling as a talent to watch, and watch closely.
While Maggie is not some sort of all-seeing guide, her ability to remember what was once her present (and the other characters’ future) allows her to compel her followers with hints about what is to come. Maggie is the sort of leader who can tell you that she knows you’re a follower and a friend because, where (when?) she comes from, you still are. It’s that sort of circular logic that drives the film, that sort of muddy cause and effect that seeps into all stories of time travel, but Batmanglij and Marling use it sparingly, always pushing Maggie’s followers (and the audience) to want to know still more. It’s these abilities, paired with Maggie’s acute sense of people and their motivations, that allow Maggie to needle away at both Peter and Lorna until everyone’s motivations, desires, and truths are thrown into a total tailspin.
By the time Maggie demands that Peter show his dedication to her and the cult by way of one stunning criminal act and Lorna comes in contact with someone who might know more about Maggie than she lets on, the audience is done, cult toast, sucked in, unable to turn away.
The Upside: With a plotline ripe for dissection and discussion, Batmanglij and Marling have tapped into a specific story and tone that’s imminently watchable; the film is also well-acted, well-directed, well-edited, even well-paced.
The Downside: Some audiences will surely balk at the film’s “open ending,” fast becoming a staple of low-budget films that just seem to fizzle out. However, SOMV’s ending stays true to the film as a whole, lending itself to personal interpretation, not just frustration. It does feel sudden, however, and may require a second viewing (or a long think) to settle in on some viewers.
On the Side: Batmanglij and Marling are currently working on their second feature film together, The East, with the pair once again writing the script, with Batmanglij directing and Marling starring.