REVIEW: Sound of My Voice Asks You to Drink the Brit Marling Kool-Aid. Will You?

Movieline Score: 6

It’s hard to say whether Sound of My Voice is a wholly bogus and pretentious indie enterprise or a weirdly compelling bit of low-budget storytelling. Probably it’s a little of both – this is the kind of picture that may often make you snort audibly, even as you’re wondering how the heck it’s going to resolve itself. And ultimately, even if the payoff isn’t quite what it should be, the picture leaves a faint chill in its wake. You probably won’t feel totally shafted for sticking with it – maybe just a little punk’d.

Snuggly couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have set out to make a documentary about cults, hoping to infiltrate one mysterious group in particular. The gang’s meeting place is a top-secret basement location; the faithful are ferried to and fro in a van, but they’re not allowed to see where they’re going. Once the loyal subjects have gathered, decked out in aggressively peaceful looking white yoga clothes, a mysterious creature appears in their midst. Her name is Maggie -- she’s played by indie darling Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script – and she greets her followers while hooked up to an oxygen supply. You see, Maggie is a refugee from the future – 2054, to be exact – and she’s come back to show the human beings she loves how to prepare for what lies ahead. To do this, she wears white leggings and swaths her long blond tresses in a white scarf. Because she’s allergic to modern food, she grows her own fruit in the basement. Also, she’s wearing massively chipped dark nail polish, the kind of WTF touch that makes you stop and wonder – WTF?

Actually, Sound of My Voice relies heavily on just that kind of WTF-ness. Is Maggie a con artist, a master manipulator, as Peter and Lorna at first believe her to be? But when she appears to have read bits of Peter’s past as if they were tealeaves, doubt begins to creep in, driving the couple apart. Maggie certainly knows how to challenge her followers, urging them to eat apples tainted with something that causes them to throw up (the fruit is a metaphor for logic, you see) and serving them a post-fast repast straight out of Fear Factor (I won’t tell you what it consists of, but she seems to carry a supply of it around in a baggie).

There’s also lots of sharing and hugging, Esalen-style, as Maggie probes the psyches of those in her midst, testing them to see if they’re worthy of the wisdom she’s carrying around in her futuristic noggin. Director Zal Batmanglij – also Marling’s co-writer -- doesn’t attempt too many fancy tricks, other than dividing his movie into convenient, bite-sized chapters. He and Marling infuse the story with just enough slackerish suspense: You may not care much about the rather aimless lead characters, but you do want to know what this Maggie shaman is all about.

That’s partly thanks to Marling’s off-kilter charisma, which appears to be equal parts nerd-girl intensity and beach-babe shrug. Marling garnered heaps of attention last year for Another Earth, a movie she both cowrote and starred in, and it’s clear to see she knows how to do a lot with a little. The question of whether it’s enough depends on your expectations, and it’s possible that people have taken Marling too seriously too soon, which in turn has led her to take herself too seriously.

She certainly digs right into this enigmatic role, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find her weirdly fascinating, with her heavy eyebrows and serene, pillowy half-smile. Still, a bit of skepticism is a good thing when dealing with either cults or alleged wunderkinds. At one point in Sound of My Voice, Maggie’s followers urge her to sing a song from the future, and she obliges, reluctantly, with an a capella version of a sweet little ditty about life changing all around us. A guy named Lem is banished from the circle forever after he points out that, far from being a song from the future, the tune Maggie just warbled is actually a Cranberries hit from the ’90s. Lem just may be the hero of the movie. Similarly, the jury is still out on just what it is, exactly, Marling is trying to sell us.

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  • thomas says:

    You do know that Marling made this just after sound of my voice and before anyone had seen either film. She definitely isn't taking herself too seriously, she's just good.

  • Edgar says:

    Steph, I'm not sure where you would get the strange idea that the apples have actually been treated with an emetic, which is how I read your commentary. Not to mention that it's hard for me to see what point the scene would have if that were true...

    And I'm pretty sure that "a guy named Lem" is actually the character "Lam," although if the sound quality at your screening was poor and you didn't check a press kit or IMDB before writing, the error is understandable.

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  • StelC says:

    Nice post. Though I haven't seen any films that Marling has co-written except for Another Earth, I have seen her performances in The Company You Keep and Arbitrage. As an actress, though pretty, she strikes me as bland and forgettable, even when playing a lead character. I appreciate that she doesn't feel the need to overdramatize on-screen (*cough, cough* Anne Hathaway), but she lacks charisma and presence. I can see how she appeals to the twenty-something to thirty-something preppy-nerdy-hipster crowd, though. They comprise the demographic that would label her dullness as "creative genius," or something like that. Then again, I am a harsh critic and find few actors in Hollywood genuinely watchable. Perhaps I'll develop a better appreciation of Marling if I ever see any more of the movies she has co-scripted.