Brit Marling is unsettling. And her first two movies contain part of the reason why. Last year, when she was busy shaking up the Sundance Film Festival with this film -- a creepy, surprising story about a cult leader -- and her earlier weirdo sci-fi romance, Another Earth, it seemed easy to figure out why she had secured a small amount of overnight success: she's really pretty. Ask Ashley Judd and Rachel Dratch about how much Hollywood power there is in just that quality alone. They all love you when you fit their idea of hot -- well, at least for about 20 minutes or until you get "puffy" or start having opinions in public.
But there are lots of pretty women in Hollywood. And the majority of them aren't playing the same ball game as Marling. She knows she's got the movie star looks. There's a female character in this film, a film that Marling wrote, who talks about how beautiful Marling is, so that part's settled. But what Marling also knows is how to Go Get Yours Right Now. Rather than wait around for someone to allow her the opportunity to direct or write after proving that she can be sexy on camera, she harnessed all her self-possession and decided to get behind the camera from the get-go. And now, thanks to that grab for control over her own destiny, she's a fledgling Rod Serling, determined to tell and star in her own spooky stories.
Like last year's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sound of My Voice is about a cult. Unlike MMMM, it's not a neo-hippie sex cult on a breezy upstate New York farm. This one's got eerie matching outfits and it's located in a sickly fluorescent basement in the San Fernando Valley and it's run by Marling's enigmatic character named Maggie, who claims to be from the future. Undercover-stalked by a young couple making a documentary, Maggie's ability to manipulate, shame, disorient and inspire breathless affection in her followers intrigues the filmmakers and, eventually, drives them down scarily divergent paths. When asked to sing a song from the future, Maggie fails in one of the movie's only intentionally humorous moments, but her commitment to control is firmly established when she induces voluntary vomiting and worm-eating on command. As you can guess, this drives a wedge between the "sane" people who're out to prove that she's a fraud.
On the most immediate level, this is a cool little mystery about which I'll give no more clues, a puzzle that unlocks piece by piece until the twisty final moments. You'll leave spooked and satisfyingly entertained. You will have entered and exited The Twilight Zone unscathed.
But even if it's unintentional, there's another story being told as the film unfolds. Watching Maggie's power grow and shift, learning her true identity while also listening to other people assert their own versions of the facts of her existence, it's easy to see parallels to Marling's own still-new career. She has a sudden beguiling power and the following of a very small group of people paying attention to her. And that power will grow over time because she's going to make sure it happens. She will lead her own cult, box-office willing, and later in life when they call her "puffy" she won't care. That'll be interesting to watch.