Directed by: Vera Farmiga
Written by: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe (screenplay), Carolyn S. Briggs (novel)
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes and Taissa Farmiga
Vera Farmiga often has such a calming presence on a movie, which makes those times when emotions pour out of her all the more affecting. In Higher Ground, she brings that talent not only as the movie’s star but as its director. It is the story of the devout Christian woman Corinne and her lifelong grappling with faith.
Adapted by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from Briggs’ book This Dark World, Higher Ground transcends preaching to either side of the issue because nobody involved in its construction is laying judgment. Corinne may be seen as a rebel by her congregation when she asks probing questions about the teachings of the Bible, but to an outsider in the audience they seem perfectly fine.
Her rebellion, and its subsequent quelling, come not in melodramatic outbursts but often with a smile. The wife of the pastor takes her to the side and tells her she is out of place in the most passive aggressive manner imaginable. Corinne doesn’t want to cause trouble, but she has legitimate questions, and the way they are ignored only increases her doubts.
Structurally, the movie is divided into chapters, and the early ones show Corinne’s beginnings with her faith as a child and then a teenager. After falling in love with a wannabe rock star, she marries and has a daughter of her own. A near-fatal car crash strengthens her religious resolve and spurs her husband to get involved. It is by far the movie’s most confrontational scene, and feels awkwardly out of place because it comes too close to pandering.
The other elements of Corinne’s life outside her faith are handled less delicately. Her family is fraught with conflict; her sister is a drug mule and her parents are divorced. These characters are not judged by the script even if they are by Corinne, though. John Hawkes steals many of his scenes as her father, a drunk who later in life feels deep remorse but is still uncomfortable with both of his daughters’ morally polar destinations.
For the most part, Farmiga walks a very thin line as both director and performer, though. Her movie poses big questions in the most pensive way, and her performance is astounding. Corinne is a woman who immediately reacts to the world around her, completely in tune with an environment and how much tolerance it will have for her.
Ethan (Joshua Leonard), her husband, is not so comfortable with his faith that he’s willing to accept questions about it. The patriarchal structure of their church has no place for a woman’s questions, and Ethan is too insecure to pose them himself. Corinne’s true strength comes from her ability to reject things she disagrees with. Higher Ground is likely to challenge nearly everyone who watches it, and as a result almost completely eliminate its chance at finding an audience. The expressionist touches that Farmiga uses to show how Corinne feels like a sexual rebel for wearing a new dress (she sees herself as wearing black lingerie and dancing in front of a mirror) will alienate any devouts that find themselves watching it, and the portrayal of faith’s positive influences is likely to put off anyone looking for a direct anti-religious statement.
Higher Ground confronts religious sexuality in ways both comical and serious, a welcome touch that will further alienate those seeking a pure religious affirmation. The husbands listen to a Christian tape of how to pleasure their wives, and Corinne and her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) exchange pictures of their husbands’ penises. More seriously, though, the movie doesn’t banish sexuality from the screen but also doesn’t over-indulge or exploit it. Again, another balancing act that Farmiga performs quite well.
Typically, Hollywood films play the middle ground in exceedingly boring ways by refusing to challenge an audience and rehashing the same stories time and again. What Higher Ground does at its best is put us directly into Corinne’s grappling and having us weigh the pros and cons with her. The sun-bashed interiors and exteriors pair well with the often carefree warmth of this community. However, it is a congregation that does not do well with questions, of which Corinne has many.
The movie often cuts to her face as information is being presented by another source, and Farmiga has this way of showing her absorb every last detail, with a question then struggling to wait until the source is finished before being asked. When she goes into religious counseling following an argument with her husband that ended with her throat being throttled, she finds that she is being blamed. The therapist gives her the ridiculous choice of being inside with salvation, or outside with the dogs.
A few scenes later, she sees a dog in the doorway of the church she’s in. When she pets it, it becomes clear that she wants both options, but on her own terms. For a directorial debut, this is a bold and daring movie to make. Though it stumbles through the early scenes and hits awkward patches when the score chimes in at the wrong moment, Farmiga emerges as a director to keep an eye on and remains a diverse actress committed to challenging herself.