The single best piece of advice about writing that I’ve ever received is to avoid the Starbucks conversation. “It is the paragon of inanity,” my professor said, rolling his eyes with a theatrical flourish before he acted it out:
“Ah, Character A, I will be going to Starbucks for a latte.”
“Why, Character B, that sounds delightful. I shall join you there.”
The Starbucks conversation happens when a writer treads water, paddling listlessly under the pretension that moving down the page means moving forward. The work becomes so clotted with banalities and picayune details that reading on feels like wading through quicksand. My professor, with okay-honey-here’s-the-real-talk candor and a dash of gentle wit, told me that the dialogue I’d tried to stack with Tarantino-esque bon mots and the prose I’d wrought out with Gaitskillian complexity were in fact a cumbersome circle-jerk. “It’s a lot of … a lot,” he said. “They’re going to Starbucks on every page.”
The filmmakers who crafted Sound of My Voice would’ve benefited from a warning about the Starbucks conversation. Though the central conceit of the movie is the power of narrative—how we let our own personal stories get sucked into the great churning machinery of archetype and myth—it is woefully uninterested in developing its own story.
This tale of Peter (Christopher Denham), a would-be documentarian hell-bent on exposing a cult led by a charismatic drifter named Maggie is an approximation of a far more compelling film. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison infuses the L.A. underground of cult leaders and con women with a voluptuous grittiness, and writer-actor Brit Marling’s Maggie strikes a razor-edged balance between dark mother and earth mother. However broodingly cool the movie may seem (and admittedly, the first fifteen minutes—where Peter and his girlfriend Lorna hear Maggie’s tale of waking naked and nameless into a past she’d only known from folklore—are immaculate noir), it’s undone by the slipshod quality of the writing.
Though the story purports to be about the dark potency of the unknowable, it undercuts its own ambition by explicating its secrets with the smug alacrity of a fifth-grader who’s just finished defining the word that will win her the spelling bee championship. Extensively researching our friendly neighborhood doomsday cult—let alone employing extreme methods to infiltrate and expose it (Peter even swallows a recorder)—is not often on the “to do” list of even the most intrepid journalist, let alone someone as unseasoned as Peter (the fact that he must moonlight as a substitute teacher is actually a significant plot point). The source of his animosity could’ve been as rich a mystery as Maggie’s true origin, but Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij explain it away in a rather pat voiceover: His mother, a devout Christian Scientist, refuses treatment for the cancer that withers and kills her. A through Z is tethered together on a tight leash; there is no room to read your own meaning into Peter’s choices. He’s an angry orphan striking back at any and all fringe sects (and tilting at Maggie gives him a two-for-one special at the Mommy issues buffet).
The problem isn’t necessarily that this loss is what galvanizes him—I’d hardly fault a show as beautifully inscrutable as Mad Men for linking its protagonist’s failed relationships to maternal abandonment—it’s the artless way the loss is disclosed. Superimposing a disembodied voice over granular footage of a boy pedaling a rickety bicycle is blunt and rushed; the writers seem to feel absolved from the task of making the death of Peter’s mother into an actual motivation instead of a convenient explanation. It’s a blinking neon arrow that hovers above his head as he insists to Lorna, over and over again, that Maggie is a real threat. (The Sound of My Voice drinking game would involve taking a shot every time he says “that woman is dangerous.”). Denham deftly undermines Peter’s perception of himself as a questing journalist by infusing him with a seething vulnerability; still, the material forces him to play broad.
Instead of using dialogue to retread everything we already know (there’s even one point where Peter simply restates the film’s premise—that there is a woman in the valley telling her followers she’s from the future—with a fervor meant to pass for profundity), the writers could have teased out Peter’s story and paralleled it with Maggie’s tale of being unmoored in time, wrenched from home. Everything that comes after this disclosure—even the scene when Maggie susses out his childhood trauma and begins to convert him—becomes redundant.
These broad swathes of exposition work better with secondary characters like Lorna, who is revealed to be a Hilton-esque celebutant turned dilettante novelist. Since she functions primarily as a proxy for the viewer—cycling through an initial intrigue to an encroaching anxiety to out-and-out horror—her vapidity is an asset. Played with a coltish, jangling energy by Nicole Vicius, her desperate need to feel valued helps vault the film toward its ending. That ending, unfortunately, includes an FBI task force serving as a deus ex machina.
The movie constructs an elaborate scaffold of lingering questions—is Maggie really from the future? Even if she isn’t, does she believe she is? What will she do with her congregation of disconsolate souls?—then topples it down by answering almost all of them with the subtlety of a torrential wind. Lead on by marketing campaign that promised a chic fusion of sci-fi, psychodrama and film noir, my friend and I expected to leave the theater talking ourselves hoarse; instead, we sat in an actual Starbucks trading “um’s” and “huh’s.” What else is there to say about a movie where a character delivers a line like “sometimes, things fall apart so they can come together again” with utmost earnestness?
After seeing the film, the trailer for Sound of My Voice is especially depressing; those two minutes and twenty-five seconds convey a heady blend of pathos and menace that the full-length feature cripples with expository bloat. If, to coin the most loathed trite-but-truism of the writing workshop, many short stories could expand into novels, Sound of My Voice is a novel that could be condensed into a short story. Still, Marling is relatively new at the word-slinging game (Sound of My Voice is only her second screenplay), so she has plenty of time to refine her craft. In an interview with i09’s Meredith Woerner, Marling says that she began writing to give herself parts where “the girl is not sexually assaulted or raped or manipulated or a sex toy—an object of affection.” We need more female filmmakers with her gumption, and I hope her characters chart a new course. Unfortunately, as it stands, they haven’t even made it to Starbucks; they’re in a house where all the lights are on but nothing is illuminated.