In the taut, gripping first scene of writer-director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer Brit Marling’s elliptical drama and Sundance Festival favorite, Sound of My Voice, a somber, twenty-something couple, Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), drive to an outwardly ordinary house somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.

A stranger meets them at the door and orders them to turn over their belongings, shower, and change into white robes. He blindfolds and handcuffs them, then drives them in a van with another couple to an undisclosed location. Eventually, they’re led into a beige-walled, carpeted basement, where Peter exchanges an elaborate handshake with a second man, Klaus (Richard Wharton). Within minutes, the unnamed cult’s real leader, Maggie (Marling), enters the basement from a separate room. She claims she’s a time traveler from a dystopian future, sent to the present to educate and enlighten.

Maggie may not be what she appears, but neither are Peter and Lorna. The couple has an agenda of their own. They’re documentary filmmakers (or more precisely, wannabe documentary filmmakers). Peter, a natural skeptic and fervent cynic, wants to expose Maggie and her secretive cult for reasons that only become clear later. Lorna agrees to join Peter out of a desire to support his goals, but she too has unstated reasons for following Peter into the cult. A charismatic presence, Maggie probes Peter and Lorna, as well as two other recruits, Lam (Alvin Lam) and Christine (Constance Wu), explicitly for their viability as members of her cult, but implicitly for their weaknesses or liabilities that make them ill-suited for membership. She encourages questioning, but rejects any attempts to challenge her authority.

For Peter and Lorna, for Lam and Christine, Maggie offers access to the secret knowledge and profound insights that only a time traveler from a dystopian future can seemingly provide. If they pass Maggie’s increasingly rigorous, self-abasing tests, they move closer to permanent status as a member of her cult, promising to take her followers to a “Safe Place” at some unspecified point in time (presumably pre-apocalypse). Other, initially marginal characters, including an older, paranoid African-American woman, Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden), and Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Pohl), an eccentric, socially impaired young girl, become increasingly important to Peter and Lorna’s search for the truth behind Maggie’s identity.

Ultimately, whether Maggie is or isn’t from the future becomes secondary to Batmanglij and Marling’s insightful, studied examination of religious cults. Maggie can be considered the prototypical cult leader, equal parts charismatic and enigmatic. In her presumed frailty, she invites instant sympathy, even empathy from her followers. She uses that sympathy and empathy to manipulate her newest followers to expose their inner lives, to expose their inner desires and doubts to Maggie and the other members of the cult. Maggie implicitly understands the human need for ritual and metaphor (as every established cult and/or religion does), using a closed circle, an apple, and a tarp as tools to compel her followers to purge themselves of real and imagined toxins.

As cult leader and (possible) time traveler Maggie, Marling meets, even exceeds, the demands of an ambiguous, complex character tailor made to her strengths as an actress. (It should, of course, since she co-wrote the role.) Marling gives Maggie the necessary mix of mystery and emotional vulnerability that makes her almost irresistible, even to a lifelong skeptic like Peter. As Peter and Lorna, Denham and Vicius respectively, hold their own with Marling. They give grounded, naturalistic performances, making it easy to believe how Peter and Lorna became a couple and why Maggie’s continuing presence threatens to undermine their relationship. Batmanglij also deserves credit for eliciting similarly persuasive performances from the supporting cast.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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