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Sound of My Voice

April 28, 2012
Sound of My Voice

I think it’s fair to say that Brit Marling currently has no competition as the face of independent science fiction cinema, with the one catch being that some might make the case that her movies aren’t actually science fiction at all. Last year’s Another Earth gave us a story about interplanetary travel where we never see anyone travel to a different planet, and now Sound of My Voice gives us a time-travel story where we never see anyone travel through time. I don’t see this as a flaw; if good sci-fi escapes the special-effects-heavy space opera to offer real drama and characters, Marling goes further in excising even the hand-wavy technology. If you don’t actually need to travel through time to tell a great story about a time traveler, don’t shoehorn it in.

Marling plays the purported time-traveller, Maggie. She points to the small number 54 tattooed on her ankle and says it means she comes from 2054. Of course, she doesn’t tell this to everyone; only a small group are allowed into the house somewhere in Los Angeles where she lives in the basement. With her closest assistants, Klaus (Richard Wharton) and Joanne (Kandice Stroh), she prepares them for the dystopian future she describes.

If this sounds like a suicide cult a la Heaven’s Gate, it’s with good reason. It certainly sounds that way to Peter (Christopher Denham) and his girlfriend Lorna (Nicole Vicius). Peter is a part-time private school teacher and aspiring documentary filmmaker; his mother refused treatment for her cancer on the advice of a new-age cult when he was a child, so he’s got a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Lorna was a directionless child of privilege who traded an addiction to parties for an addiction to wheatgrass; she seems just the type that Maggie’s message will resonate with.

The two seek to infiltrate the group in order to expose Maggie to the world, but it’s unclear who will expose whom as the cult prepares for the coming journey Maggie speaks of. And if that wasn’t ominous enough, we get hints that it somehow involves one of Peter’s young students — the quirky but preternaturally bright Abigail (Avery Pohl) — and a mysterious woman (Davenia McFadden) making some sort of preparations in a hotel room.

There’s a lot going on here, and I’ll admit that not all of it connects up solidly, even allowing for a certain core ambiguity. Many questions — beyond the obvious ones — go unanswered, which is going to frustrate a lot of people. But this is somewhat appropriate for a movie about people making judgements on information that’s far from complete. Even with all the loose ends, Marling and co-writer — and director — Zal Batmanglij manage to explore some very interesting ground about received narratives and trust.

Marling’s performance anchors the film; she plays Maggie with a balance of harsh warning about the coming calamities and serene acceptance that things will eventually work out. Or, if she’s simply a con artist, she plays both good and bad cops in turns, knowing just when to flip from one to the other to sink her hook in deeper. Even in the audience, not face to face with her, she is mesmerizing, and it’s not too hard to see someone slipping into her thrall.

Denham and Vicius are apt surrogates for this inward spiral, playing off of Marling’s Maggie and each other in some interesting ways. By the end, neither of them is any more completely what they seem to be than Maggie is; everyone tells stories to each other and to themselves, and there are dozens of ways of reading what’s going on.

It will take a lot of work to methodically unpack the film and establish what we actually know, and I have a feeling it will be vanishingly little. Certainty slips away and we must learn to be content with the stories we tell ourselves to fill in the gaps. Whether Maggie is from the future or not doesn’t really matter; she’s right about one thing: thinking things through can sometimes take you only so far.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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