After Terra Nova‘s cancellation, I wrote a post bemoaning the idea that science fiction always has to be effects-heavy but suspiciously light on the world building and the consideration of what question said fiction is supposed to pose. A partial answer to my complaints is the new movie Sound of My Voice, which stars Brit Marling as a cult leader who claims to have arrived in Los Angeles from the year 2054, and to be preparing her initiates for a journey back into the future with her. In part, it’s a movie about whether or not we think Maggie is really from the future or not. But in a greater sense, it’s about whether or not we’ll be able to recognize the harbingers of the future when they present themselves to us, or whether we’ll marginalize them as insane, deluded, or pathetic. In neither case does Sound of My Voice have an answer—it’s far too canny for that.
The movie follows Lorna and Peter, a young couple who are making a documentary about Maggie’s cult—though Maggie and her acolytes don’t know it. Ally is a former Hollywood party girl who’s emerged from rehab with a desire for a purpose, if not exactly much sense of what it might look like. Isaac is a long-term substitute teacher whose mother lost her battle with cancer after refusing to be treated with traditional medicine. And while they’re initially suspicious of Maggie—who they meet only after months of preparation and vetting, and after submitting to cleansing, giving up their clothes, and being driven blindfolded to a house somewhere in greater Los Angeles—and they initially find her self-helpy lessons grating (she makes them dance and says things like “I have to exhaust you people to get you to stop thinking and start breathing.”), both of them find themselves profoundly moved and unnerved by her.
Maggie’s power, it seems, lies in making the mundane seem profoundly moving. When she holds a (hard to watch) purging ritual, she encourages her followers to vomit up the food they’ve eaten as a way of cleansing themselves of bad thoughts and memories, Isaac resists for a practical reason: he’s swallowed a transmitter so he can record the events of the meeting through a camera embedded in his glasses, and he doesn’t want to resist being discovered. But when Maggie susses out, at least in generalities, the kind of pain he’s feeling over his mother’s loss, he vomits, too, picking the transmitter out of his vomitus while everyone else is distracted praising him for overcoming such a major psychological obstacle. In another conversation with her followers, Maggie explains that in a war she says is coming “Things come together and they fall apart. It’s a really dark time. My generation’s really comfortable with death…Not everyone has that kind of technology, so there are a lot fewer recorded albums. But every now and then, a song comes along that touches everyone, and it manages to get around.” When her followers beg her for a song, she sings them “Dreams” by the Cranberries, explaining that “It’s made famous by a singer called Bennetton.” Is she just an incompetent fraud, as Lorna suggests? Or truly from a time when our past survives only as Canticle for Leibowitz-like fragments?
Those questions end up dividing Lorna and Peter, especially when Maggie asks Peter to bring a girl from his class, who rarely speaks, constantly wears a red cap, and is building a rather unsettling black Lego city in her bedroom to meet him—and when Lorna is approached by a woman who claims to be investigating Maggie for a variety of crimes. The movie isn’t conclusive as to who’s right, and Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who wrote the script together, have said they’d like to do a sequel if Sound of My Voice does well. But they’ve laid out their questions clearly, and created powerful senses of menace, hope, and strangeness. And all this without a shot that required special effects, or anything they couldn’t pick up in an afternoon shopping trip.