In a basement, tucked away somewhere in the monotonous Southern California suburbs, there is a woman dressed in white who claims she is from the future. That's the irresistible pull of Sound of My Voice, the tiny indie film that caused a huge stir at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and comes to theaters, by way of Fox Searchlight, this weekend. Directed on virtually no budget by Zal Batamanglij from a script he co-wrote with the star, Brit Marling, it's a tiny, incisive movie that worms its way inside you and devours, expertly building tension and dread as it navigates the audience through its central mystery. Focused on its razor-sharp execution and ideas rather than its characters, the movie is more of an intellectual wallop than an emotional one, but when it quite deliberately ends on a cliffhanger, you have no choice but to ask for more.
Quite ambitiously for first-time filmmakers, Batmanglij and Marling have said they planned Sound of my Voice as a trilogy, and the further you get into this lean and engrossing film, the more their detailed world-building emerges. We first enter this mysterious basement alongside Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), who are infiltrating the cult led by Maggie (Marling) as investigative journalists-- though we don't know that yet. Intead Batmanglij takes us through the arduous ritual of meeting Maggie, from scrubbing you entire body with soap to being handcuffed and blindfolded, then performing an elaborate secret handshake while locking eyes with the aged hippie (Richard Wharton) who is Maggie's right-hand man.
When the woman herself enters, speaking partly in encouraging platitudes and partly about her own disorienting experience of traveling more than 30 years into the past, Maggie is magnetic and instantly alluring-- though Marling's performance is aloof and hard to read, Maggie has the clear, powerful charisma of all history's great cult leaders, and that power somehow only grows the more we get to know her. Peter and Lorna are naturally skeptical, and Maggie never explicitly proves she's come from year 2054, beyond making vague and foreboding promises about a coming war, and how her followers must prepare for the disasters to come. Batmanglij and Marling cannily avoid giving us a definitive answer, but they also take advantage of the moviegoer's natural desire to see something new-- we want to stick with our main character, Peter, and align with his skepticism, but when faced with a presence as powerful as Maggie and this movie, we're also inclined to believe.
The natural frustration of seeing a film intended as the start of a trilogy-- with no guarantee that those follow-up films will be made-- is that it cuts the engine just as it's built up the proper amount of speed. Maggie's world is fascinating and complex, but to keep the story simple Batmanglij gives us only hints-- a lesson in shooting guns for Lorna, an indoor greenhouse, Maggie's cigarette habit-- while focusing on the fractures in Peter and Lorna's own relationship. When the finale ratchets up tension and then abruptly cuts off, we're not only left in the lurch about Maggie's identity-- which is a secret fine to keep-- but Peter and Lorna, our main characters torn apart by a plot also left resolved. For a movie so small and frequently intimate, Sound of my Voice can lose track of the people inside it, and it's a surprise to find something so elegant can also feel a little hollow.
And yet, you'll be glad for the time you spent with Maggie, and with Batmanglij and Marling-- who also co-wrote and starred in Another Earth-- as independent filmmakers who see money as no obstacle on the way toward expressing big ideas. If the second and third Sound of my Voice films get made, they'll hopefully contain the same incisive filmmaking style and ambitious ideas-- with maybe a little more character texture to round things out.