Brit Marling has it all backwards. Whereas most of the industry’s multi-talented females cut their teeth in small roles before developing their own material (think Sarah Polley, or even Drew Barrymore), Marling, 29, came on the scene with a project she not only starred in, but produced and co-wrote. Following in the footsteps of heady, indie/genre fare like Primer, 2011’s Another Earth saw Marling play a young woman scarred by having committed vehicular manslaughter, all while an ever-encroaching, duplicate orb literally looms in the sky. A high-concept, sci-fi fantasy with ardent interest in weighty stuff like grief and collective existentialism, the micro-budgeted movie proved far better in theory than execution, as Marling’s director and writing partner, Mike Cahill, took an over-arty approach to the story, underlining a Shyamalanian self-pride that needed minimization to be palatable. Marling, however, shone through brightly, giving a sensitive performance that suggested she could well transcend the artistic limits of her debut. They may not have always been dramatically plausible, but her scenes emitted sparks of raw possibility, made all the more potent by the knowledge that she arrived with behind-the-camera ambitions. Hers is a rare appeal indeed: She’s an angelic, yet rough-around-the-edges, beauty whose interests speak to fanboys and indie fans alike, and whose budding acting chops are only part of her arsenal.
Marling followed Another Earth with Sound of My Voice, more low-tech sci-fi fare she starred in, co-wrote, and produced. Better than its predecessor, the new film cast Marling as a supposed prophet from the future, whose cultish followers included a pair of journalists aiming to peg her as a fraud. Wreathed in enticing secrecy that was elevated by shrewd viral marketing, Sound of My Voice again boasted big ideas in a small package, this time pondering the nature of faith, the power of perception, and the dangers of groupthink. There’s certainly something in Marling’s pet projects that hasn’t quite connected—a delivery that can’t live up to all those lofty themes. Both movies aspire to offer sleights of hand left open to interpretation, but their common problem is that they don’t seem capable of answering the questions they themselves raise. In short, they’re not nearly as clever as they think they are. And yet, Marling remains a talent who deeply intrigues, captivating on screen and fascinating off. Whether collaborating with Cahill or Sound of My Voice filmmaker Zal Batmanglij (with whom she’s also creating the upcoming The East), she seems to be the driving creative force behind her work, and with a shortage of young female voices in the biz (and, specifically, in her genre), her presence and pluck make her instantly noteworthy.
Marling’s latest endeavor is a third-billed role in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, a talky Wall Street thriller that stars Richard Gere as a Madoff-esque magnate in multiple levels of hot water. Marling plays Gere’s daughter and employee, who slowly uncovers her father’s shady white-collar crimes, and sees her worldview and security corrupted as a result. It’s a true supporting turn, and one of the best to come from an actress so far this year. Each scene with Marling’s character is one of high tension and emotion, and there isn’t a moment in which the actress isn’t grippingly present. The corresponding authority and vulnerability, brimming out of an inherently powerful woman grappling with fast, curveball truths, seem honest and earnest in Marling’s hands. In a brisk film that’s largely solid, yet intermittently clunky, and gaining knee-jerk buzz for Gere’s rather familiar work, Marling easily emerges as the highlight. Her small, yet memorable, performance feels like a breakthrough, even though she broke through nearly two years ago.