Of the many things going for actress/writer/producer/It Girl Brit Marling, her greatest asset is how well she knows herself. Seeing that nobody knew anything about her before the two movies she co-wrote and starred in at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Marling's utter self-awareness may also prove to be her salvation.
Those two films — last year's Another Earth and the new Sound of My Voice — heralded the arrival of a captivating screen presence: a lean, long blonde whose dark eyebrows help shade eyes that sparkle with wit. She's lithe, grounded, and usually coiled. It's a look that suggests the potential for either fight or flight, both of which her character in Voice, a supposed time-traveling guru named Maggie, employs from time to time.
No matter the film around her, Marling holds the camera's (and viewer's) attention as long as she wants it. If only she could settle long enough to remember to tell a story. Sound of My Voice is a sketch, an inkling of an exploration of cults of personalities as seen through the eyes of two documentary-making skeptics played with miscalculated casualness by Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as Peter and Lorna, a maddeningly pretentious couple who pose as true believers to expose Maggie's lies.
They utilize video cameras embedded in Peter's eyeglasses and a couple of cheap spy gadgets, but their rational detachment is their secret weapon. They see themselves as journalists in search of truth, and that's where Marling — and her co-writer and the film's director, fresh-outta-film-school Zal Batmanglij — makes her first misstep.
As the couple gets pulled deeper into the basement-dwelling cult, they each worry that the other has been compromised — Peter through a perceived sexual attraction to Maggie, and Lorna through Peter's weak opinion of her. But what doesn't worry them nearly enough is the complete lack of usable footage they've captured or the fact that the cult they've zeroed in on for public shaming seems about as threatening as a Cranberries concert. Hell, there's even a group Kumbaya set to the band's song "Dreams."
Then what happens? Well, the end credits, that's what. Sound of My Voice is less than a wisp — it's incomplete. Just as events start pointing to a thriller of a third act, the 85-minute movie is over, leaving behind the faintest aroma of betrayal. By the time you leave the theater, you may find your sense of what came before immediately dissolving.
Sound of My Voice feels like a web experiment with distribution. Filmed with minimal budget, its no-frills, shaky-cam charm already feels dated nearly a year and a half after its Sundance premiere, and the cult at its heart is sterile and castrated. You'll find none of the woodsy dark Americana of last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene in this screen cult; only white sheets, a dialysis machine, Brit Marling, and the Cranberries.