I dislike stars. Not the celestial bodies, and not, for the most part, movie actors, but the stars that serve as a shorthand guide for readers of film reviews. There's a reason we include them, but at the same time, star ratings are a reductive, one-size-fits-all approach.
I bring this up because of a phone call I got from an annoyed reader who went to see Damsels in Distress based on my four-star review. He and his companion had walked out midway through. I explained that I gave Whit Stillman's film four stars because it was a smart, quirky film that made me laugh frequently. That's obviously a very personal response, but then, aren't all of our responses personal?
Unfortunately, a star rating system suggests that a movie one particular critic loves will therefore be one everyone will love. This, of course, is never the case. I find that the easiest call to make is the "three-star" film: well-executed, satisfying, good-value-for-money, but nonetheless slightly familiar.
Sometimes the toughest decision is whether a film merits two stars or four. Two stars is what I often assign to adventurous failures, or movies that really sizzle for about an hour. This week's film, Sound of My Voice, is a good example. So was The Tree of Life, a movie that some thought was a masterpiece but I decided to call a two-star film. While Terrence Malick's images are gorgeous and unforgettable, with numinous, mysterious sequences, I nonetheless found the experience maddeningly obscure, emotionally remote and cosmologically unconvincing. But far from being mediocre or worthless, it was an extraordinarily ambitious, accomplished film that failed to work its magic—on me. Two stars, then, is often the judgment reluctantly given to worthwhile but "failed" movies.
Sound of My Voice is no Tree of Life, but for much of its running time, I was thoroughly intrigued by this tale of two documentary filmmakers who infiltrate a mysterious cult headed by a diaphanous blonde who claims to be from the future. Although the premise of characters descending into a madhouse is straight out of old-school grindhouse cinema, from Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor onward, this film from director Zal Batmanglij effectively exploits our millennial ecological anxiety. We want Maggie, the group's leader, to really be from the future—she claims that we are bound for terrible upheaval, and there will be just a few survivors. Her mission is to save as many of us as she can, but Peter and Lorna, the documentarians who want to expose her, think she's leading her followers to mass suicide.
Batmanglij, working from a script that was co-written by Brit Marling, who also plays Maggie, does a good job depicting the conflicting motives of the would-be debunkers. It turns out that both Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have backgrounds that make them susceptible to the comfort and discipline of a cult, and we see their struggles to maintain their skepticism (although their bickering becomes predictable). Nonetheless, the film's two best scenes are fine ones indeed—and both might work even better on a stage. Each is a long, nerve-wracking confrontation between Maggie and a recalcitrant disciple—and the second one makes clever, amusing use of a Cranberries song, "Dreams."
But as the narrative builds to its climax, literal-minded viewers may find that it doesn't make a lot of sense. If Maggie is a savior from the future, why does she behave like an abusive cult leader? But if Maggie is a charlatan, what are her motives, and the motives of her followers?
Despite the shortcomings, Sound of My Voice represents another promising effort from Marling, an actor who has turned to writing screenplays to produce better roles for women, and herself. (Her last writing-and-acting credit, Another Earth, was also a speculative fiction concerned with alternate worlds.) Sound of My Voice isn't as good as it should be, but the fault, dear reader, lies not in the stars but in the half-baked script.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The faults of the stars."