Missing Answers

Despite fine performances and an intriguing sci-fi story, 'Sound of My Voice' needs more

Maggie has come from the future—2054, to be exact. She didn't know that initially. Months ago, she woke up face-down in a bathtub full of water, nude and without a memory.

Over the next few weeks, the pieces slowly started fitting together: She's here to save humanity from its own future (however that might work), and there was some civil war between our present and hers.

So that's what Maggie (Brit Marling) is selling. Peter (Christopher Denham) and, maybe to a lesser extent, his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), aren't buying. They've heard the stories about how Maggie was gaining converts in that perpetual lost and searching world of Los Angeles, so they decide to secretly film the charlatan in action for a documentary about cults.

For several minutes at the beginning, Sound of My Voice doesn't let in any light on its subject. Peter and Lorna—unknown to us at the time and, as anonymous actors, providing no context for what we're seeing—arrive at a suburban house and are led through a ritual that includes a thorough shower, blindfolds and hand restraints, and being driven to an undisclosed location, where they eventually gain an audience with Maggie. The shower, they're told, is because Maggie's immune system can't handle the pollutants of 2012. Indeed, when they do meet her, Maggie is hooked up to an oxygen tank.

As Peter and Lorna become more involved with Maggie, tension mounts between them. Is the toll this is taking on their relationship worth it to film a documentary? (And, incidentally, documentaries apparently can get made now just because you buy a spy camera.)

Marling made a splash last summer in Another Earth, a low-budget sci-fi flick that was devoid of the usual sci-fi trappings. She co-wrote that film and this one, which is similarly a science-fiction story with none of the usual visual touches. That makes the films stand out, and Marling writes for herself very well. She brings an ethereal quality to Sound of My Voice, a film in which everything is kind of in soft focus, anyway.

If you had to compare them, Another Earth hits a little harder and is more satisfying. There is so much mystery about Maggie, and the script (co-written by director Zal Batmanglij) does not want to provide too many details. Still, like most movies, it needs a climax. If you don't define what it is people are watching clearly enough, that ending won't mean as much.

It would also be more rewarding if there were more depth to Maggie and her growing cult. Based on what we see of her teachings, she's nothing special. Sound of My Voice is only 85 minutes long. It feels abrupt, and could use about 10 to 15 minutes of granular detail. There is some attempt to dive deeper: A representative from the Justice Department warns Lorna about how dangerous this Maggie character is, and tries to wring information out of her, but the way Batmanglij fits it into the narrative feels tacked on. Why is she dangerous? What are Maggie and her disciples up to? And just how did she get here from 40 years in the future, one that sounds like its technology was wrecked by a war?

There are good things here. The performances are great for this kind of thing, and Marling will hopefully continue to write as well as act. She has a singular style that is starting to gain some strength. Sound of My Voice presents a world shrouded in secrecy, and makes an excellent case for why we should want to learn more. But how can we ever get the answers when the film itself doesn't even have them?

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