It really is amazing what kinds of tools are available to independent filmmakers these days. Sound of My Voice, an ultra low budget film from director Zal Batmanglij (and co-written by lead actress Brit Marling), shows that with just the right amount of creativity, an interesting film can be created with limited resources. The movie was a huge hit at the South By Southwest Film Festival last year, and it is very encouraging that Fox Searchlight picked it up and gave it a limited theatrical release.
The film tells the story of a documentary filmmaking couple Christopher (Peter Aitken) and Nicole (Lorna Michaelson), who infiltrate an underground cult in order to reveal its secrets. Once inducted into the cult in a mysterious basement (and affordable location!), they meet the enigmatic cult leader “Maggie” (Brit Marling), a woman who explains that she has traveled to them from the future. Though not the protagonist, Marling is definitely the star of the film, switching from tender to ferocious in the blink of an eye, and it is easy to see how she would draw someone like Christopher in to believing her outlandish claims.
It is unfortunately tricky to explain too much more about the film without revealing some of the surprises, but suffice to say Sound of My Voice is very smart about doing a lot with very little. In particular I found the cult scenes eerily accurate to how some of these secret societies work (between this movie and Martha Marcy May Marlene, low budget movies about cults are hot right now!), and I applaud the filmmakers for not making this another tired found footage movie. A faux-doc would have been an easy way to tell the story, as there are even sequences in the film centered around Christopher and Nicole struggling to find ways to record their experiences, but seeing a low budget film told as a film is such a relief after movies like Paranormal Activity, Project X, and Chronicle seem to be taking over the cinemas. Sound of My Voice itself was also shot on the popular Canon 7D digital camera, which is affordable to practically anyone (it’s the camera I use for many of my own shorts!), and it can capture some great imagery for those skilled enough to know how to work around its limitations even if there are times where the budget shows. For example, aside from a final sequence at the La Brea Tar Pits, most of the film takes place in simple locations like dusky basements or local coffee shops, and there is even a scene where Maggie walks alone down Skid Row wrapped in nothing but a sheet, which was shot guerrilla style (yikes!). The movie lacks the gloss of larger Hollywood productions, but it also gives the film a nice sense of grittiness.
One place where the film seems to divide viewers is the somewhat ambiguous ending. Much of the tension in the movie stems from Christopher and Nicole arguing about whether or not Maggie is actually from the future or not, and without giving away too much, it is safe to say the film leaves things somewhat open-handed. In this way Sound of My Voice reminded me a bit of Donnie Darko (one of my least favorite movies ever), in that a few disjointed pieces seemed to build to some ultimate answer that did not actually go anywhere. Yet unlike Donnie Darko, Sound of My Voice still manages to create a complete arc for the main character Christopher, and if the film is viewed in the light of this character’s own personal journey, it succeeds. A movie should never be valued on the merits of its nebulous sequel plans, but Zal Batmanglij has mentioned that he ideally would like this film to be the first part of a trilogy, so perhaps viewers will eventually get some answers as to Maggie’s actual agenda and where she came from. Regardless, Sound of My Voice is a very interesting film with the opportunity of becoming a cult hit, and those lucky enough to see it will no doubt enjoy debating and discussing it in their own shadowy Silverlake basements long after they have left the theater.