The second of Brit Marling’s two Sundance features has reached South African screens. Like her first, Another Earth, her latest should not be missed. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Brit Marling, the young Sundance writer/actor/producer prodigy, has had two films playing in South African cinemas in the past eight months. Both are quiet, micro-budgeted indies; both are set in the same skewed reality in which The Twilight Zone unfolded. Another Earth was more obviously speculative fiction—in the sky above another, shadow Earth draws closer, and a young woman who killed a woman and a child in a drunken car crash must make amends. Now (both films debuted simultaneously at Sundance 2011), Sound of my Voice arrives at the bottom of Africa. It starts out as a companion piece to the recent cults-are-bad thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, but ends with a twist so chilling that it leaves you with doubts about the fundamentals of the space/time continuum. Both Another Earth and The Sound of my Voice were co-written and produced by Marling, and while they do not share a director, they have as distinct a sensibility as a Jerry Bruckheimer picture. Except better.
In an interview for the movie website Collider, Marling has said, “I think that one of the things that [my collaborators and I] all like or are attracted to, why we have so much common ground, is the idea of sci-fi or science fiction, but set in a kind of reality. Sci-fi that feels real, so that the possibility for something extraordinary can happen in a space as ordinary as this conference room. It’s like ‘What’s under the table?’ The possibly for extraordinary things in ordinary spaces interests us.”
And so in Sound of my Voice, we encounter two typical Los Angelinos in their twenties, trying to make a documentary about cults in general, and the strange story of a woman who has come from the future in particular. Their guru is Maggie (played brilliantly by Marling), who, on their first night in a nondescript basement somewhere in the Valley, tells them that she awoke naked in a bathtub with no memory and no money, and only a tattoo of an anchor and the number “52” on her ankle as a clue to her identity. She wanders around Los Angeles draped in a sheet, smokes crack, gets up to who knows what. Then she is saved by a stranger. With him by her side, she is determined to tell her story, and warn her acolytes what waits for them on the other side of the century, and how best to prepare for it.
Watch: Sound Of My Voice trailer
Both Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius) have troubled pasts—abandoned by Boomer parents to some degree or other, they seem like the perfect candidates for Maggie’s ministrations. Peter is rabidly averse to cults, mostly because his mother was in one, and he blames her untimely death on her foolish devotion. Lorna is the daughter of Hollywood party parents, and her coke-fuelled youth puts her squarely in Maggie’s perfect demographic. Yet she is curiously resistant, while Peter feels the pull. They are as committed to their documentary as they would be to a cult, until Maggie threatens the orbit of their relationship, and they get sucked in deeper than they would ever have imagined.
The cult ferries its adherents blindfolded in a soccer mom’s minivan; there is nothing menacing about their basement lair. The obsessive cleanliness, the hospital attire, and Maggie’s greenhouse-grown foods are all measures meant to protect her from the contagions of the early 21st century. What ultimately makes Sound of my Voice so captivating is the fact that Maggie isn’t offering these lost Los Angelinos a thread to the divine, but a lifeline to the future. She does not offer God, but 2052. Her vaguely outlined future is as pastoral and brutal and communal as an imagined American—or, for that matter, South African—past. Maggie doesn’t suggest a war-scarred landscape rained down upon us by Terminator’s SkyNet, but a hunched post-lapsarian hippie commune, where apples taste like apples from the good ol’ days, and there are sing-alongs and survivor group meetings and a shared hell that is now in history’s rearview mirror.
The film’s eeriest moment comes when Maggie is asked for some proof that she is who she says she is. An acolyte begs her to sing a song from her time, and when she finally agrees to do so, in a halting, not unpretty voice, the choice she makes is so ingenious, so genuinely creepy, that it turns the film on its head. Before this moment, we would never have considered the notion that Maggie is from 2052. Afterwards, we can’t help thinking that she might be.
This sort of subtle plot point has become a Marling trademark. They make her films rare triumphs of gesture over exposition; because nothing is telegraphed, we are left interpreting eye movements and the smallest of gesticulations. No one and nothing is obvious to us, and both Marling’s movies derive their suspense from this void. We are on edge because we recognise these feelings from real life; this sense of being lost, missing the pieces of the puzzle that would somehow offer clarity. That is both Sound of my Voice’s methodology, and it’s narrative thrust: we will do anything, and go anywhere, to feel safe.
“I think what's interesting about cults is that in our society now,” Marling told The Huffington Post, “we leave our families and the places we grow up, but it's only recently that that became true in human history. The idea of pursuing some sort of personal sense of manifest destiny. What an odd idea. What happened to the sense of community or tribalism or needing people? I think Sound Of My Voice really came from a meditation on that. On forming a tribe. And also the idea of being in search of meaning.”
Meaning comes with a steep price, as Peter and Lorna will learn. As the final act of this superb film unfolds, we are reminded that to be human is to be uncertain. DM
Photo from Sound of my Voice (still shot)