Zal Batmanglij’s provocative debut feature and Sundance hit “Sound of My Voice” follows a young pair of documentarians seeking to infiltrate an underground cult. Starring indie “it-girl” Brit Marling as the cult’s enigmatic leader, the film’s exploration of the boundaries between knowledge, faith and trust prove that it doesn’t take a big budget to drive a high-concept story.
By day, twenty-somethings Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are a substitute teacher and a writer, respectively, but by night, after weeks of preparation, they are finally close to realizing their goal of exposing a local cult. Following explicit instructions, the couple scrubs down and changes clothes before being blindfolded and taken to the basement of a safe house, where they meet their fellow members and leader Maggie (Marling).
Shrouded in white and hooked up to an oxygen tank, Maggie is like a modern-day Madonna whose mesmerizing aura resonates with even the staunchest disbelievers like Peter. Claiming to be from the distant future, she promises to protect her disciples from imminent catastrophe in exchange for their faith and trust. As Maggie’s demands escalate, pressuring the converts to prove their worthiness, Peter and Lorna begin to question just how far they are willing to go in pursuit of the truth; that is, if they even know what truth means anymore.
Marling anchors the film as the manipulative Maggie, who constantly fluctuates between wise sage and petulant superior, relying on others to bring her items from the outside world that her condition prevents her from setting foot in. The performance is a study in calculated charisma, such that, by the end, it matters less whether Maggie’s story is true but rather that her power to elicit such blind faith is a force to be reckoned with.
While this may all sound quite heavy, co-writers Marling and Batmanglij infuse the story with moments of levity that prevent the film from taking itself too seriously. The elaborate handshake that designates membership seems silly at first, but, by the end, becomes emblematic. In another memorable scene, Maggie performs “Dreams” by The Cranberries in a botched attempt to impress her followers with a song from the future.
“Sound of My Voice” leaves plenty of loose ends and unanswered questions that suggest it would have perhaps functioned better as a television pilot (and indeed, the writers originally conceived of the story as a web series), but nonetheless manages to please and intrigue as a film. Viewers who prefer their movies neatly wrapped up with a bow should take note and proceed with caution).
An engrossing and haunting examination of the lengths to which individuals will go to in order to hold fast to something they believe in – no matter how rational or irrational – this is a film that doesn’t shy away from testing conventions and suspending disbelief.