Before The OA, there was Sound of My Voice. The directorial debut from Zal Batmanglij, co-written with Brit Marling. There is so much familiarity with The OA in this film that it almost felt like part of the puzzle. With Netflix cancelling the show (why Netflix? Why?!) this was the closest thing I could find to fill that OA-shaped hole in my life.
With the breathtakingly meta ending of The OA Season 2, it’s tough now not to see Brit and Zal’s work as messages for us to decipher in the real world. Who are they really? And what are they trying to tell us?
Yes, I know I sound like I’m in a cult. I am sure that to some, the fans who are on hunger strike, those who are demonstrating outside Netflix HQ, those who have paid for billboards in Times Square begging for The OA to be saved, look like they are in a cult. Fandom is a cult in a sense, but not a harmful one most of the time. Ironically (or not), Sound of My Voice is all about a cult of which Maggie, played by Brit Marling, is the leader. See what I mean? My brain doesn’t know what to do with all this information. How do they know what’s going to happen? Are they from the future?
Well, Maggie says she is. 2054 to be precise.
Sound of My Voice begins with a couple being taken willingly from their home, under strict instructions which they must obey. They are handcuffed and blindfolded, then driven to a house in a suburban neighbourhood but they have no idea where. They seem calm enough, though the odd glance between them tells you that they’re up to something. This is Lorna (Nicole Viscius) and Peter (Christopher Denham): wannabe documentarians, investigating and attempting to infiltrate a cult operating from the basement of a house somewhere in LA.
Peter has a cross to bear. He is of logical mind—everything is black and white to Peter. This outlook makes it very difficult for him to understand why his mother joined a cult, and then when she learned she had cancer, refused all medical assistance putting her faith solely in the cult leader. On his thirteenth birthday, Peter woke up. His mother did not. It’s pretty understandable then that he would feel bitterness towards cults that would dangerously promote this kind of self-neglect, and would want to expose and destroy them.
Lorna is the progeny of a model and a film producer, emotionally neglected by her parents who allowed her to do pretty much whatever she wanted growing up. Which meant she started a lot of projects but never saw anything through to the end. She turned to drugs at a young age and replaced one form of dependency with another ever since.
And so it seems obvious that Lorna will get drawn into the teachings of the cult and find somewhere she finally belongs, and Peter will have to make a choice. Remain steadfast and expose the cult as a sham or leave it alone and let Lorna be happy. But no, that’s not what happens.
In true Brit and Zal style, there’s a hell of a lot more going on here. Considering the majority of the film either takes place in the basement where Maggie tells her story or in Lorna and Peter’s apartment, it is quite a feat that this film is by dialogue alone, a science-fiction movie.
The Sound of a Handshake
Lorna, Peter and several other new ‘disciples’ are brought to the house and much is demanded of them if they want to prove themselves to Maggie. They have to scrub themselves clean and wear the purest white clothes; reminiscent of the Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers, but with less smoking. (I should mention that this movie was released in 2012, pre-Leftovers). On arrival, each member is welcomed by Klaus (Richard Wharton), with whom they exchange a distinctive, intricate handshake, which they have been practicing. Seeing this for the first time really felt like the prototype for the now infamous ‘movements’ in The OA.
When we first see her, Maggie arrives like an angel (or a bit like Khatun from The OA) wrapped in a shawl but dragging an oxygen tank along the beige carpet. She sits all the participants down on the floor and begins to tell them her story. It is eerily similar to how Prairie gathers the Crestwood Five around her.
She tells the participants that one day she awoke face down in a bathtub a quarter full of water. She almost drowned, but when she came to, she had no recollection of who she was. Naked, and in a strange apartment, she grabbed a sheet and just ran. She lived on the streets until her story was heard and she was rescued by Klaus who took her in and brought her back to health. Slowly, she began to remember: She was from the future.
Again, many similarities in Sound of My Voice with Prairie’s story in The OA. Prairie had, as a little Russian girl named Nina, drowned in a school bus accident. She had a near-death experience from which she returned blind. Then after being adopted by Nancy and Abel and brought up as Prairie, she was kidnapped by Hap, a scientist studying NDE’s and kept for seven years in captivity with four others. She eventually escaped and jumped off a bridge to freedom where she was reunited with her parents, and with her vision restored.
Lorna, Peter, and the others have regular visits to be with Maggie. She makes it clear that she is sussing out who is ready to go with her and be saved. She describes the future as riddled with war, famine, and struggle, and has come back to select a special band of chosen people to prepare for what lies ahead. She leads the group in a series of intense psychological exercises and tells them about herself and the future, never proving nor disproving her extraordinary claim. Maggie’s charismatic manner is convincing, and both Lorna and Peter have moments in which they waver between skepticism and belief. Lorna is especially concerned when she notices that Peter, who was initially adamant that Maggie was a charlatan, seems to now be intrigued by and even attracted to Maggie. She manages to bring out emotions in him that Lorna has never been able to during their relationship. I don’t blame him; she is stunningly beautiful, and the sound of her voice is so calming. In fact, if you are an ASMR fan (like me), this whole film had tons of tingly triggers. Maggie would almost certainly make me a believer though it was fun watching Brit play a more manipulative character than I have seen before.
Peter, of course, denies he has feelings other than contempt for Maggie and steps it up a gear. He swallows a camera so that he can record what happens during the group meetings. Typically that day is the day that Maggie wants proof of faith in the form of vomit. He does eventually give in; Maggie sees in Peter that his mother dying felt to him like he was left behind. What’s worse is that he had to go and live with his grandparents and his grandfather it seems had a penchant for ripe young boys. Keeping that bottled up inside for so long is sure to make you sick. It is clear now that Peter needs this more than Lorna does.
Most of the participants follow through with what they are asked for fear of being expelled, especially after seeing Lam kicked out for asking Maggie for real proof that she’s from the future, after she sings The Cranberries ‘Dreams’ as it was a song around in her time (honestly, if Maggie had said that Dolores O’Riordan was dead in her future, that would have freaked me out). She covered it up—if that’s the right way to put it—by saying that you can’t ask someone born in 1980 to prove something from 1959, it is all just stories after all. But when Peter is asked to bring a troubled eight-year-old girl that he teaches to meet Maggie, the tension between Peter and Lorna bubbles over. The task leads Peter to confront Lorna on her abandonment issues, in return Lorna questions who Peter has become and suspects that Maggie is truly breaking him down and exposing the long-neglected issues that Peter has never addressed.
Why did Maggie want this little girl? Well, because Abigail is her mother.
Abigail was in the class that Peter taught as a supply teacher. She always wore a woolly hat, she fell asleep in unusual places and caused some of her classmates upset by writing things like ‘Terrorist’ on their new pink school bag. Abigail rarely spoke, and the second she got home to the time she went to bed, she made black Lego sculptures, that sprawled across her bedroom. These appear to be visions of a bleak future, much like the one that Maggie has described.
Abigail’s hat immediately made me think of how Prairie was dressed in New York when Hap first took her. It is not just the woolly hat, but the way they wear it.
Abigail’s mother appears to be absent, and in an uncomfortable scene, we see Abigail’s father make her stop playing Lego, put her to bed and inject something between her toes. In an earlier scene, he did appear to be a concerned father watching her play in this strange way. Abigail didn’t put up a fight against her father, as if she is used to this as a daily routine. That doesn’t make it innocent of course, if anything that could make it more disturbing. He may believe she has a mental health or behavioural problem. She may be on the spectrum. He may be dosing her with meds to help her sleep, either for her own good or for reasons of a sinister nature. Whatever the case, Prairie’s youth was similar; she was drugged for years by her parents because they thought she had a personality disorder.
Abigail’s father lies on the bed next to her with his laptop as we cut away, leaving us with only our imagination to fill in the blanks. With an established narrative of neglect and abuse at the hands of parental figures, you assume that whatever medication he is giving her is either legitimate treatment for an illness or a potential routine for sexual assault.
Lorna, who has now kicked Peter out, is cornered by Carol Briggs, a law enforcement officer investigating Maggie and the cult. Briggs provides information into Maggie’s real persona, the methods of the scam the cult are perpetrating and most importantly their plans. Carol tells Lorna that Maggie is wanted for a variety of felonies. Lorna is compelled to assist the investigating officer, explaining that the girl is supposedly Maggie’s mother, which solicits a hearty laugh from Briggs, and after asking if she is capable of keeping a secret from Peter is then offered an explanation of why Maggie really needs the girl—an explanation we are not privy to.
In a blink and you’ll miss it moment at the beginning of the film when Lorna and Peter first arrive at the house, a young boy is seen in one room, having a plaster put on his arm where blood has been taken. Later on, we see that blood is transfused, presumably into Maggie; the reason given is that she cannot survive in the toxins of the present day. This is why she uses an oxygen tank and only eats food grown within the house. Oh, and worms. One of the tests she gives to the participants, after weeks of fasting, is whether they will eat live worms. Maggie does, and all but Lorna follow her lead. Once again, this harks back (or forward) to Prairie/The OA eating a live bird.
In a sense, Maggie is kept inside a prison of her own making. Not too different from the prison Hap kept Prairie in.
On the flip side, the truth could be that because Maggie is in hiding from the police and never goes outside, she requires oxygen as she never breathes in fresh air, and the cult members can’t be seen taken food to her in the house. She may need the blood because she has an illness (or thinks she does) or she is selling unadulterated blood on the black market.
In the climax of Sound of My Voice, Peter does deliver Abigail to Maggie, but not at the house. He is encouraged by Lorna to make the meeting happen in a public place—the museum, a place filled with history, which seems apt. Maggie and Abigail meet and what happens reinforces the validity of Maggie’s claims—or so it would seem. As I said earlier, in gaining entrance to the meetings the cult members are ‘tested’ by performing a complicated handshake with various twists and turns, too intricate to be guessed and too precise to be improvised. “How do you know my secret handshake?” asks Abigail, Maggie responds convincingly, “You taught it to me.” It’s a defining moment for Peter who is now convinced of Maggie’s virtue, surely to become the staunchest of supporters, that is until the police burst in through the back door and snatch Maggie away—he is accused of being a traitor, it was, however, Lorna who set up the sting. The question remains, how did Maggie know the handshake, and what does this mean for the narrative?
Brit and Zal really know how to tell a good story—one that leaves a multitude of possibilities as to the truth.
Was Maggie really from the future? Was Abigail her mother? This should be the least likely scenario realistically. My logical mind tells me no, she was a felon; a particularly captivating con artist.
But maybe there was a good reason for why she did what she did. Was it not that Abigail was Maggie’s mother, but that Maggie was Abigail’s mother? Had custody been taken away from Maggie because she was deemed an unfit mother? Was she mentally ill? Was she just trying to see her daughter but couldn’t because she was on the run? Was she aware of what Abigail’s father was doing and trying to save her?
Why go as far as starting a cult though? Honestly, people are more likely to help someone they believe to be a time traveller—someone who can do something for them—than to help a stranger. Was Maggie just a mother desperate for help?
What was Abigail’s father showing her on the laptop? If it was how to do the handshake, and Abigail did teach her daughter Maggie how to do this 30+ years in the future, then this is pretty big news. It feels like an infinite loop. Alternatively, he may have been showing her the handshake, but because he wanted them to become part of the movement, and be a chosen one taken by Maggie.
As with The OA, logical, psychological, and paranormal explanations could be applied to everything that happens. It’s the wondering that makes the story so compelling. An argument could even be made that Maggie was one of several versions of The OA, telling her story in a different style in this alternate reality. She’s been Nina, Prairie, even Brit, so there’s no reason why she couldn’t be Maggie too. We know from Season 2 of The OA that The OA’s true love Homer was seeking her way, way back in the past.
The way these stories intertwine is just magical, and we definitely need to know more. I know that one way or another Brit and Zal will keep it going, I just hope that there is someone out there with belief in their story.