Notwithstanding a plot that might involve time travel and definitely involves quasi-religious indoctrination, Zal Batmanglij's directorial debut "Sound of My Voice" essentially revolves around the struggle to understand the inexplicable. Batmanglij defies conventional genre expectations with this eerie tale of a potentially dangerous cult and the trenchant documentarian committed to unearthing its motives.
Non-fiction filmmaker Peter (Christopher Denham) and his partner Lorna (Nicole Vicius, best known for "Half Nelson") join a series of clandestine basement gatherings held in an unremarkable Southern Californian home, where the enigmatic Maggie (rising star Brit Marling) preaches proto-philosophical conceits and announces that she hails from the future. Nothing is what it seems, including the assumption that Maggie must be full of it.
As Peter continues to secretly record Maggie's sermons, she begins to infiltrate his mind, threatening his sanity and straining his relationship with Lorna. "We wanted to make a documentary about cults," she tells him, "and now we're in one." Batmanglij proceeds through their cryptic meetings with Maggie, who blames her apparent terminal illness on traveling back in time from the year 2054.
Using a chapter-based structure and littering the story with unresolved details about Maggie's origins, the director plays up the situational intrigue to a consistently provocative degree, maintaining a creepy feel from start to finish. His characters' talky, self-serious mannerisms sometimes hamper the overall impact of that atmosphere, but Batmanglij holds it together with tantalizing questions about the nature of the cult. When Maggie asks Peter to commit a crime on her behalf, the movie builds to a deft climax.
It's not hard to find Maggie's claims rather suspect, if only because "Sound of My Voice" never once announces itself as science fiction. Asked to share a song from the future, Maggie instead sings a recognizable pop tune from the past. But Batmanglij's script, co-written by Marling, dares viewers to reach a more complicated conclusion than the likelihood that the whole premise is based in lies. Asked to "prove" her status as a time traveler by a skeptical member of the cult, Maggie challenges the man to prove his own past, and he comes up dry. Regardless of her motives, the argument maintains her authoritative stance. Even when Lorna uncovers details about Maggie's past that may discredit her, Batmanglij withholds them. Whether or not you choose to believe in Maggie, both possibilities require a leap of faith.
Marling has emerged as the breakout wonder girl of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, having also starred and co-written the metaphysical sci-fi indie "Another Earth," which premiered in competition. Both movies toy with imaginative concepts in the service of obtaining philosophical depth, at times suffering from overextending their heady conceits, but neither one falls apart as a result its density.
"Another Earth" explores trauma and the desire for self-evaluation through the fantasy of a planet populated by our doppelgangers. "Sound of My Voice" takes a broader look at human nature, targeting the tension between faith and cynicism -- and refusing to endorse either extreme. A closing scene suggests that there's more validity to Maggie's allegations than initially implied, and the sudden ending works with magnificent efficiency. Batmanglij generates a Spielbergian sense of wonder -- facing down forces that defy immediate rationalization, pitting them against cold objectivity, and letting the mystery linger with a sudden cut to black.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Programmed in Sundance's low budget NEXT section, "Sound of My Voice" remains unsold, but has been generating positive word of mouth throughout the Sundance. Marling's visibility at the festival should help it find a smallish buyer sooner rather than later, but it's a bit too esoteric for wide release. However, the filmmaker originally conceived of the project as a web series and hopes to make a sequel, which could happen if the movie finds a cult following of its own.
criticWIRE grade: B+