Made on a budget of next to nothing, with no special effects, "Sound of My Voice" is one of those movies which, like gymnastics routines, is entitled to a "degree of difficulty" rating.
A convincing dystopian sci-fi thriller, "Sound" tells the story of a journalist trying to infiltrate a cult built around a young woman who claims to have traveled from the year 2054 to prepare her followers for the dark times to come. The movie heightens suspense using ordinary, everyday settings and placing them in its eerie, sci-fi context.
Peter (Christopher Denham) and Nicole (Lorna Michaelson) are trying to make a documentary about the secretive cult. Not a lot of background on the group is given — it's not clear what their numbers are, and we aren't given a lot of insight into their belief system. The sketchiness is helpful in establishing the mood of uncertainty and dislocation that pervades the film.
We're introduced to Peter and Nicole as they prepare to be initiated into a higher level of participation — actually meeting the time-traveler Maggie (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay) and taking instruction from her directly. Even this is handled in a spooky, but admirably low-budget way. The two are directed to a small, suburban house in San Fernando Valley, where they shower, change into white hospital gowns and are blindfolded before being driven to another location. There's no technology more advanced than a remote-controlled garage-door opener, but the ritual imparts a sense of foreboding and menace.
As Peter and Lorna get pulled into the group, they begin to experience unexpected emotional reactions triggered by Maggie's calm but assertive insightfulness. A few mysterious characters hover outside the orbit of the couple and Maggie's group: There's a young girl who attends the school where Peter works during the day, and who appears to be suffering from a form of narcolepsy, and an investigator who is chasing Maggie, claiming to have some information about her true past.
"Sound of My Voice" is framed by Peter's skepticism of Maggie, and his conviction that there is some kind of fraud involved, or that the group is hurtling to some mass-suicide event. For much of the film, director Zal Batmanglij steadfastly veers away from offering any evidence to back Maggie's claims, leaving viewers to evaluate her sincerity for themselves.
While some might find the ending a little tacked-on, there is still a lot to enjoy here. Mr. Denham is very effective in portraying Peter as being a bit of a mystery to himself, despite his overweening sense of mission. Miss Marling is excellent portraying a down-to-earth sort of prophet, subject to messianic rages but usually projecting a good-natured calm. But Mr. Batmanglij's claustrophobic, nondescript interiors, which encourage the audience to suspend disbelief, are the real star of "Sound of My Voice."
TITLE: "Sound of My Voice"
CREDITS: Directed by Zal Batmanglij. Written by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling
RATING: R (fleeting nudity, language and brief drug use)
RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS