There is a wistful old Cowboy Junkies song about a breakup (okay, there are dozens of those, but “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” is particularly great) that speaks to a woman’s sudden freedom of choice, absent a man, and what she’ll do with it: “Maybe tonight it’s a movie, with plenty of room for elbows and knees, a bag of popcorn all to myself, black and white with a strong female lead.” The science-fiction tinged indie drama Sound of My Voice is in color, but it brought that line to my mind because the main character, the quietly charismatic cult leader Maggie (Brit Marling) is the ultimate strong female lead. Not defined by sexual desirability, but by the calm force of her person.
These types of parts for actresses are rare things, and Maggie’s power likely has a lot to do with the fact that Marling co-wrote the screenplay for Sound of My Voice with her director, Zal Batmanglij. She also co-wrote a great, challenging part for herself in last year’s Another Earth, another film with an element of science fiction made on a shoestring yet far superior to 95 percent of big budget releases.
(READ: Time’s review of Another Earth)
Marling is only 28, but these aren’t girls she’s creating. They are strong leads that happen to be female. I’ve only seen one episode of HBO’s Girls and would happily see more, but I wish the pop culture mob would take a break from dissecting the significance of the winningly awful 20-something character the audacious Lena Dunham has written for herself and turn its attention to listening to the sound of Brit Marling’s voice. The actress is gravely talented; imagine if the young Meryl Streep were writing herself parts that looked and felt like no others.
The movie unveils Maggie slowly, like a gift that may be dangerous yet is also entirely exciting. Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are aspiring documentary filmmakers who live in Los Angeles. He substitute teaches to pay the bills, she’s a reformed Hollywood party girl who has shed her moneyed upbringing. They both want to do something important and somehow, they’ve learned about a burgeoning cult in the San Fernando Valley that revolves around a woman who claims to be from the future. We meet them as they are finally infiltrating Maggie’s world, being brought blindfolded to the house where Maggie’s handlers/followers, Klaus (Richard Wharton) and Joanne (Kandice Stroh), control introductions.
They’re skeptics, there to expose a scam, but when Maggie finally pads barefoot out of a back room in a basement, dressed all in gauzy white linens like an Eileen Fisher fantasy of summer wear, and sits down to talk, they’re mesmerized and so are we. Maggie recounts her awakening in a bathtub nude and drowning, not knowing who or what she was and then her eventual realization that she is a time traveler from 2054, sent back to warn a chosen few of what’s to come.
The initiates are told that the atmosphere in the future is different, which causes Maggie to require an oxygen tank, specially grown organic foods and regular blood transfusions. She’s the very embodiment of our contemporary fears about what we’re doing to our environment and our morality as a culture. (Julianne Moore’s character from Safe would love this cult.) Even Peter and Lorna, careful clean living types themselves, can see this might be reasonable, if only they could really wrap their heads around the idea of time travel. What she describes of the future sounds like a version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the early years. “Things come together and they fall apart,” she says quietly, wearing a dreamy expression. “It’s a really dark time. My generation is really comfortable with death.”
(READ: James Poniewozik’s interview with Lena Dunham)
Between the monochromatic costumes, the suburban California settings and Maggie’s talk of taking her followers with her, there are obvious parallels with the Heaven’s Gate cult. But the allure of a cult, explored to such creepy perfection in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, is given an additional layer of intrigue because of Maggie’s gender. Between Peter and Lorna, who will be more susceptible to her pull in the long run? A young man can’t help noticing how attractive she is (Marling looks likes a cross between Naomi Watts and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy) or how good it feels when she shines her light on them. But a young woman may admire how Maggie uses her traditionally feminine gift of emotional insight to bring her followers to their knees. (Lorna notes, with a mix of admiration and jealousy, Maggie’s ability to bring Peter to an “emotional orgasm.”)
The movie is laced with more practical mysteries. What has Maggie got to do with a strange blonde child who likes to build towers of all black Legos at the school where Peter has been teaching? Or the glum, heavyset woman (Davenia McFadden) who arrives in Los Angeles and immediately sweeps her hotel room for recording equipment? Batmanglij’s pacing is very deliberate, and marvelously, he leaves open the dueling possibilities of science fiction and a much more mundane reality. The movie explores the basic debate over faith, the idea that we can feel a sense of relief in cynicism realized and turn around and face the horror of our lack of faith in the next moment. At one point Maggie tells her followers she’ll be gone soon, but they’ll still always be able to hear the “sound of my voice.” She’ll haunt their minds. Sound of My Voice performs a similar dark magic.