There are three things you need to know about Hollywood’s voiceover industry. First, getting the job is more about proving your sound and skill than it is about your looks. Second, for more than a century the work was largely uncredited, misunderstood and overlooked as behind-the-scenes busy work. Third, without any real rulebooks or definitive guides to sounding “authentic”, it’s a domain historically dominated by older white men.
All of these obstacles form the heart and soul of 2013’s In a World … Lake Bell’s writer-director and lead debut after many years of supporting roles and ensemble cast parts. Set in Los Angeles, the film follows the life of Carol Solomon, a struggling but talented 30-something freelance vocal coach. For most of her life she’s lived in the shadow of her lifetime achievement award-winning voice actor father (the prolific Fred Melamed, whose own credits involve everything from Law and Order to Adventure Time). That is, until she goes head-to-head with him and his male protege (Party Down’s Ken Marino) to secure a highly coveted trailer voiceover gig for a billion-dollar fantasy film quadrilogy.
While there have been plenty of shows that explore the tactlessness of “That’s show business!”, from Call My Agent! to Extras and I Hate Suzie, Bell’s vision of Hollywood is a little sweeter, while maintaining that inevitable step-on-your-toes chaotic energy. Sure, the odds are still stacked against anyone who isn’t considered a veteran or heavyweight. Carol gets kicked out of home in the first 10 minutes of the film so her father’s much younger (and more successful) girlfriend can move in. She’s also given this fatherly career advice before she ends up sleeping on her sister’s couch: “This industry does not crave a female sound. I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth.”
In Bell’s reimagining of the industry, though, the underdogs have supportive friends, siblings, next-door neighbours, and hot-shot executive producers in their corner, and a certain here-to-shoot-my-shot charm that rarely goes unnoticed.
In typical early 2010s tradition, gender roles in this film are thoughtfully balanced out, if not entirely subverted. For every power-hungry male, there’s a guy who just wants to help. For every play-by-the-rules woman, there’s one who goes off-script to do something less expected of her.
For example, Carol’s work colleague-turned-love interest (played by the comedian Demetri Martin) takes on the unlikely role of devoted cheerleader and coach because he wants to see her succeed rather than because he expects anything in return. And there’s a healthy reality check that quietly cuts through the feelgood vibes in the women’s bathroom during an awards show towards the end of the film.
But the best bits of In a World … are the incidental, meandering scenes in which people vomit out their flaws, insecurities and thoughtful quirks – and instead of being punished for opening up are heard without judgment. These moments also reveal how we as an audience so often judge others for how they sound, from making assumptions about who they are in the first five minutes of meeting them, to assuming how successful they must be from a distance.
Carol obsessively builds an accent library in her spare time, eavesdropping with her trusty voice recorder in laundromats, hotel lobbies, on the sidewalk, in a quiet, constant study of her craft. She’s also prone to unprompted lecturing of women in public or pointing out their vocal flaws – such as what she calls “baby voice” syndrome – to anyone who’ll listen. Bell resists the urge to present her character as a perfect indie movie heroine and has fun with it, too. Carol may sound her age but she also has a tendency to express excitement in a way that prompts her brother-in-law to ask, “Are you excited or just farting?”
In a World … is as much about how our voices shape the way other people see us as it is about industry politics. And it’s a reminder of the difficulty of making a name for yourself based on what you believe in when it’s easier just to hitch to the nearest bandwagon.
But it’s also a film about standing up to power – and making a conscious decision to share the spotlight. Most importantly, it’s about learning to tell the difference between who we’ve been told is worth listening to and who is actually worth hearing.
• In a World … is now streaming on SBS on Demand