Back in college I interned for a voiceover coach. Obsessed with the wide spectrum of sounds that voice actors could coax from their throats, I was convinced I'd fit perfectly into this little-discussed entertainment universe simply because I loved it. But sorting through the piles of radio and TV "copy" proved voiceover scripts were overwhelmingly written to be performed by men.
"Aren't there any good parts for women?" I asked my (female) boss. She didn't answer, merely smirking at my naivete.
Four years later, Lake Bell (Children's Hospital) tackles this very question with her film In A World..., an excellently-crafted exploration of the difficulty women face in breaking through the male-controlled niche. In her first feature as writer, director, and producer -- for which she won the 2013 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance -- Bell also stars as the endearingly awkward Carol Solomon, a struggling vocal coach who lives in the shadow of her famous father Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed), one of voiceover's reigning kings.
Sam considers himself heir apparent to the late Don LaFontaine, whose deliciously deep tones made the words "in a world..." de rigeur for movie trailers, and he's already chosen the arrogant young buck Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) as his protégé. When Carol expresses a desire to do voiceover, Sam dismisses her with the curt remark, "The industry does not crave a female sound" -- shortly before kicking her out of the house so his much-younger girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) can move in.
However, with the help of her friend Louis (Demetri Martin), Carol stumbles onto successful recording gigs and is soon tapped to narrate the trailer for a futuristic woman-oriented quadrilogy (a sly poke at The Hunger Games) that will resurrect LaFontaine's iconic phrase. News spreads fast in the small voiceover community, and egos flare when Gustav and Sam also enter the fierce competition for the assignment, desperate to protect their sacred territory from female infiltration.
In A World... provides a funny, clever, unfailingly honest glimpse into one of show business' best-kept secrets (see the movie's introductory tribute to LaFontaine, which explains how a miniscule number of men monopolize the industry), but more importantly the film underscores the difficulty modern women face in succeeding anywhere.
Female characters abound, but none -- save for Geena Davis' cameo as a steely studio executive -- are placed in any positions of power. Carol must fight to claim her place every step of the way; Holden's Jamie is a submissive helpmate who cheerfully ruins take after take of Sam's recordings; even the capable and levelheaded sound engineer Cher (Tig Notaro) serves more to relay information than to play an active role in the proceedings. Those who work in fields unrelated to entertainment don't have it much easier -- Carol's sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) works at a concierge desk where the only possible escape from routine would mean cheating on her adorably dorky husband (a splendid Rob Corddry). It subtly reflects a societal truth: Women may outnumber men in population and education, but when it comes to areas of influence we ain't doing so hot.
What seems to be holding women back? For Carol, traditional male dominance is to blame, but the film also manages to shed light on the more disturbing case of women retarding themselves via their own voices. In interviews Bell has spoken at length about her personal quest to end the "sexy baby vocal virus," a combination of women's speech patterns such as "uptalk" and "vocal fry" that culminates in an immature, rather unintelligent sound. (You know, those girls on reality shows who, like, always seem to, like, end every sentence in, like, a question or whatever?) This manner of speaking has become a pandemic among women in their twenties and thirties, resulting in "squeaky toy" voices that, as Carol states, may be great for the bedroom but are hard to take seriously in the career world. (One scene has a particularly frustrated Carol handing her card to a random young woman who talks this way, firmly advising her, "We are so much better than that.")
A greatly gifted writer and director, Bell gets to the heart of social issues with humor instead of depression. In A World... has a lively charm with some opportunities for belly laughs -- Gustav's seduction of Carol is proving to be a comedic highlight -- but it's essentially an observational film, one where the characters and situations are funny not because they're straining for a joke, but because the humor is intrinsic to them. Less ha-has and more "we're laughing 'cause it's true."
The film's coda gets a little message-heavy, but maybe that's a good thing. Perhaps the best way to drive a point home to this content-oversaturated world of ours is to use a certain amount of obvious force -- hammering through the cultural ADHD with, to borrow a phrase we learn from Martin's character, "positive roadblocking."
As a woman with a naturally high pitch (dear God, please don't tell me I sound like a sexy baby), I'm conscious of the fact that people do generally tend to pay less attention to female speakers. We associate basso profundo male voices with authority and virtually ignore those who sound differently, regardless of the value in what they might have to say.
So what's the solution to the problem of being heard? Carry a recorder everywhere, as both Bell and her movie alter ego do, to listen to other people's inflections? Attend elocution classes and expand your vocabulary? (Actually, that's probably not a bad idea.) Or perhaps what we can best learn from Bell is determination and self-confidence. Carol's success in In A World... occurs not because she sounds so spectacular, but because she remains true to herself, refusing to adapt to any conventional mold. So raise your voice -- or maybe lower it -- but trust in your own strength. It's about time word of mouth made a comeback.
Follow Jaime Lubin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jaimelubin