Twentysomething Silver Lake couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) talk their way into an unnamed cult that meets in the basement of a San Fernando Valley split-level in the middle of the night to follow the teachings of the enigmatic Maggie (Brit Marling). A supposedly sickly yet ethereally glowing blonde dressed in white shrouds with a respirator as an accessory, Maggie claims to have been born in 2030 and mysteriously transported to the present day to prepare a chosen few for an end-times civil war 45 years into the future. Hollywood heiress Lorna and substitute-teacher Peter, both in search of direction, think they've found it not in following Maggie, but in surreptitiously making a documentary exposing her as a fraud.
Co-written by director Zal Batmanglij and star Marling—Sundance 2011's It girl, who pulled the same double act on last summer's spacey Another Earth—Sound of My Voice has the hallmarks of the uninspired micro-budget calling card. The bland, jittery visual "realism" can't counteract overheated performances of tin-eared dialogue, which strain for pulp but often land at soap. Still, an unusual ambition shines through: The film is interwoven with low-key, almost-subliminal jokes about life in Los Angeles and particularly the shadows of the entertainment industry populated by those whose main "talents" are a willingness to deceive and to believe. A major plot development is only pulled off because a child is convincingly entranced by the possibility of meeting an actress; the ongoing subtext about amateurs pretending to be filmmakers who become obsessed with proving that a beautiful woman is pretending to be something she's not is rich in its hypocrisy. After all, Maggie might be faking it, but her would-be exposers definitely are, and Maggie has a charisma that's both undeniably real and impossible for Peter and Lorna to ignore.
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At its essence a noir mystery in which a self-appointed detective is spun around by potentially fatale femmes, Voice's open-ended climax sketches the outlines of an enjoyably loony, time-and-space-bending, vaguely political apocalyptic conspiracy—think Southland Tales Ultra Ultra Lite. Like Richard Kelly's controversial cult film, which constituted the final three parts of a nine-part story begun in a series of graphic novels, Voice was originally envisioned as an episodic experience that couldn't be contained in a single film. In an outgrowth of its conceived Web-serial format, the 86-minute feature is presented in numbered chapters, and Batmanglij has promised a continuation of the story in future films or webisodes.
Actually, the intimate frame and quick-hit nature of online video seems a natural home for Voice, with its steady rhythm of reveals building to a big cliff-hanger, as well as its micro-budget, lo-fi aesthetics. Within the realm of Web video, Sound of My Voice would be so much richer than its competition that it might qualify as a game-changing revelation. But barely cinematic enough to fill the space of the big screen, the film ultimately feels as though it's a teaser prologue for something that doesn't yet exist.
Sound of My Voice was directed by Zal Batmanglij; written by Batmanglij and Brit Marling; and stars Marling, Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius. Rated R. Click here for show times and theaters.
This review did not appear in print.