Two documentary filmmakers infiltrate a mysterious cult, only to find themselves drawn into the leader’s insidious grip, in the taut, compelling low-budget feature “Sound of My Voice.” An object lesson in how much can be achieved on modest means with a smart combo of craft and story, this nifty little spellbinder reps a strong calling card for first-time helmer Zal Batmanglij and his producer, co-writer and actress, Brit Marling. Positive whispers should help this Sundance Next highlight find select theatrical pulpits, though it’s likely to lure its widest audience through tube and online showings.
Originally conceived as a Web series, the 84-minute pic is divided into 10 installments, presumably for online-friendly viewing. Yet far from feeling patchy or episodic, “Sound of My Voice” has a killer narrative thrust that plays well on the bigscreen, the chapter numbers serving less to offset individual vignettes than to chart the central characters’ disturbingly swift assimilation into a dangerous sub-subculture.
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Silver Lake couple Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are blindfolded and driven to a house somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, where a quick-cut montage shows them disrobing, showering and donning white smocks. The two soon meet several similarly garbed and seemingly like-minded adherents of a group led by beautiful twentysomething Maggie (Marling), who spins a straight-faced yarn about how she is a visitor from the year 2054. Apparently allergic to everything around her, Maggie must remain hidden in the basement, hooked up to an oxygen supply and dependent on home-grown produce and the blood of her followers for survival.
A full-time schoolteacher who conceals his emotions beneath a cynical smirk, Peter has a long-held personal hatred of cults, which explains his desire to expose one on camera. “She’s a con artist,” he says of Maggie, though neither he nor the audience can be entirely sure, after a mesmerizing scene in which Maggie puts Peter on the spot and verbally abuses him before gently coaxing him out of his emotional shell. Lorna, who’s assisting Peter on the project, fears he may be more susceptible than he realizes, especially when Maggie tests his loyalty with an outrageous request.
Emerging as a multifaceted talent at this year’s Sundance fest with both “Voice” and “Another Earth” (which she also co-scripted, produced and starred in), Marling transfixes as a gorgeous but alien-like figure who draws her dominance from an outward display of sickly vulnerability. The film’s title is an apt and evocative one, as this charismatic leader speaks in a voice both gentle and warm, even as it thrums with understated menace. Denham and Vicius are fine in detective-duo roles that could be more richly elaborated in future films or series.
“Sound of My Voice” is an economically assembled film that knows what it’s doing at every step, and Batmanglij appears to have channeled his limited resources for maximum effectiveness; Tamara Meem’s editing is sharp, Rachel Morrison’s lensing often splendidly unnerving as the camera presses up close against the characters. The tease of an ending, which follows a climactic setpiece at Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, leaves the viewer wanting more not just from the story, but from a new filmmaker of considerable promise.