Dir. Zal Batmanglij
Actress/writer Brit Marling is a curious collection of things: Beautiful, brainy, yet oddly accessible, with a clear penchant for the sort of far-flung, sci-fi literature that Marty McFly reads late at night under his blanket with a flashlight. In short, she is a consummate geek goddess, even though her films steer far clear of laser blasters and warp speed. Instead, they are rooted oddly in-between reality and the fantastic, and the friction that lies between the two.
Her new film has familiar echoes of other stories, including cult indoctrination, skeptics-turned-believers, and a manipulative narcissist heading the organization, but what Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who co-wrote the script with her, manage to do is connect the dots between all kinds of disparate realities.
On the one hand, you have Peter (Christopher Denham), a young school teacher and documentarian who lost his mother in part due to a cult's influence, and his girlfriend, Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a former hard-partying playgirl. The two are determined to reveal what they believe to be a cult scam involving a woman who claims to be from Earth's future; surreptitiously recording the experience of being accepted into the group for a documentary they hope to make exposing the cult and their spiritual leader, Maggie (Marling), as complete frauds. On the other, you have the would-be futurist Maggie herself, dressed in flowing robes, speaking pearls of half-baked, pseudo-psycho patter, there to warn everyone about the impending doom they are about to face.
But then, there's also a mysterious little girl, Abigail (Avery Kristen Pohl), who attends Peter's school, where he works as a substitute teacher. Regularly conking out, maniacally devoted to creating dark, black Lego sculptures of futuristic cities and totems, she is every bit the mystery Maggie is. Through it all, Peter and Lorna, try desperately to hold to their stated mission even as Peter begins to sway under Maggie's spell, until Lorna encounters an alleged federal agent from the State Department, Carol Briggs (Devenia McFadden), hell-bent on bringing "Maggie" to justice for a bank robbery, who convinces Lorna to try and trick the cult leader into coming out into the open so she can finally be arrested.
All of these elements clash against one another, all these different perceptions of what may or may not be true, and the film suggests, unsurprisingly, your belief and understanding depends very much on your perception of things. It makes for a frustratingly ambiguous ending, open to interpretation on many levels, but the filmmakers well understand the alternative -- definitively determining whether or not Maggie is as she claims or just a common con artist -- would have reduced the film's significance by half.
The film's most transfixing moment occurs at the beginning, with Peter and Lorna first experiencing the vigilant rituals and paranoid indoctrinations of joining Maggie's small throng of followers. Scrubbed, draped in hospital-like white gowns and transferred from one location to another blindfolded, the couple is at the complete mercy of their handlers, the menace of which is not forgotten, even as we first meet the shimmering Maggie. Marling, whose previous sci-fi-tinted film Another Earth, was partially done in by having to play opposite an actor far beneath her ability, is suitably mesmerizing as the ethereal would-be futurist, both iridescent and oddly down-to-earth, and here with Denham and Vicius, among other stand outs, she has a lot more with which to work. Still, beguiling as the premise may be -- our desire for such outsized other-worldliness is the very reason cults are so routinely successful, after all -- the film still feels a bit under-realized, so taken with its curious tone and pacing that it neglects some basic narrative building blocks, losing coherence in service to maintaining its peculiar vibe. There's still plenty to consider when the screen inevitably cuts to black, but you can't help but feel slightly cheated anyway.