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'Sound of My Voice' review

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Up-and-comer Brit Marling stars as the charismatic leader of a cult in this indie drama, which she also co-wrote. The story works in much the same way as her insidious character, drawing you in with an air of mystery and the promise of enlightenment, before finally leaving you in the dark.

Marling, who also co-wrote and starred in Another Earth (both films showcased at Sundance 2011), has definite star presence. Her ethereal charm is well-suited to the role of Maggie and sets the tone, inspiring awe and discomfort in her small group of followers, though two of them are imposters.

Ostensibly, Peter (an angsty Christopher Denham) and Lorna (an always glazed-looking Nicole Vicius) have infiltrated the California cult to make a documentary exposing Maggie as a fraud, but Peter also has some personal issues to work out relating to the untimely death of his mother and Lorna is so keen to make their relationship work, she would follow Peter into hell.

Maggie's stuffy basement doesn't seem that scary, at first. The followers continue to live in the outside world, only convening there in the evenings for pseudo-spiritual lectures. It even feels a bit silly, with a longwinded secret handshake being required for admittance along with total faith in the notion that Maggie has travelled back from the future to save the world.

However, the laughs are few and - except for an impromptu rendition of a famous Cranberries song - probably unintentional. First-time director Zal Batmanglij seems more determined to give this the feel of a claustrophobic thriller, but the only genuine sense of peril relates to a little girl (Avery Kristen Pohl) who is a point of connection between Peter and Maggie.

Apparently, though, Batmanglij and Marling aren't genuinely concerned with the identity of the child. The fact that she always wears a red hat could hold a clue as to her real function within the plot which makes vague references to Hollywood sci-fi conventions. Likewise, a high-concept final twist confuses the matter of what this film is really about.

Questions of spiritual faith are raised at the beginning and end, but for the most part the story centres on the bond of trust between Peter and Lorna. Maggie comes between them in unlikely ways, forcing Peter to "an emotional orgasm" that makes Lorna jealous. There's also a gradual reversal of roles as Peter loses his perspective on the situation, forcing Lorna to take charge.

It isn't the supernatural mystery but the down-to-earth business of human relationships that creates intrigue. Everything else is just a distraction. As promising a talent as Marling is (behind and in front of the camera), the risk is that too many dead-end turns could leave viewers feeling cheated. And maybe that's the point, but it's hardly profound, is it?

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