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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sound of My Voice

Film draws strength from nuanced acting

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In Sound of My Voice, Maggie is the beguiling leader of a doomsday cult with an unusual spin on the future: She claims to be from the future, 2054 to be exact, and has somehow emerged in the present to save the chosen few from an impending catastrophe. Her cult is difficult to join and remain within, what with all the obstacles and tests thrown up by Maggie (Brit Marling) and her partner Klaus (Richard Wharton). Despite the challenges, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are determined to join the cult in order to undermine it. They are aspiring documentary filmmakers on a mission to expose the secretive group, even if they have scarcely begun to uncover its secrets. In the process, they learn at least as much about themselves and each other as they do about Maggie and her cohort.

Writer-director Zal Batmanglij shoots many scenes in a style approaching the methods of undercover filmmakers recording on the sly. He establishes tension over whether Peter and Lorna will be found out, and even allows us to wonder if there could be a particle of “Twilight Zone” veracity to Maggie. When she reluctantly obliges one of her followers' requests for a song from the future, she replies with a bit of what turns out to be the Cranberries' “Dreams.” A cover version from 2054? And yet, other things can't so easily be put down to conscious fraud, even given Maggie's acute understanding of human psychology. Alongside Maggie, the hippie waif, her assured and much older partner speaks unreasonable things in reasonable tones to the circle of followers gathered in the banal setting of a suburban basement.

Playing at being an investigative journalist, Peter is driven by memories of his mother's death when he was 13; a member of a New Age cult, she refused medication and died. He's tightly corked, always thinking and hard of feeling, keeping bad adolescent memories carefully wrapped until Maggie's intense probing strips away his protective covers. Lorna's dissolute teenage years led to therapy and rehab, yet she wonders whether she's traded one set of addictions for another. Peter and Lorna are searching for purpose (“To do something that matters,” he insists) beyond the shallow, bohemian arts culture surrounding them. For Peter, the pretense of directing anything, even a documentary film with limited potential, answers his need for control in a chaotic world. “They're weak and looking for meaning,” he tells Lorna, a dismissal of Maggie's followers that could just as well apply to him.

The strength of Sound of My Voice comes in part from the finely nuanced acting and well-drawn characters. No one comes across in one dimension. It's also a deeply understood examination of a cult as surrogate family and community of faith in a fractured society, where even the strangest ideas begin to ring true when held in common against a hostile, uncomprehending world.

Opens May 18 at the Oriental Theatre.

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