Movie Review: Vera Farmiga Stars in her Directing Debut “Higher Ground”

Quiet drama “Higher Ground” is an actress Vera Farmiga’s feature directing debut, based on the bestselling memoir by Carolyn Briggs. It is a sensitive yet assured handling of the story of a wife and mother’s crisis of faith.

Based on Carolyn Briggs’ memoir “This Dark World,” and adapted by Farmiga with Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, the film depicts the journey of Midwesterner Corinne from godly wonderment to roiling dissatisfaction.

“Higher Ground” tells the story of Corinne Walker, played as a child by McKenzie Turner, as a teenager by Ms. Farmiga’s sister Taissa and in adulthood by the director herself.

After a high-school romance, an unplanned pregnancy, an abrupt wedding, and an accident-fueled religious conversion, a young couple (Farmiga and Humpday’s Joshua Leonard, both of whom deliver deeply accomplished performances) wind up at the center of a tight-knit, conservative Christian society.

“Higher Ground” flashes back to Corinne’s earlier life from an opening scene of her baptism, in a sun-dappled pond surrounded by rustling trees and happy faces. Though her subsequent experiences will be marked by growing ambivalence, the joy of that moment is never entirely dispelled.

The rural evangelical Christian community is marked by hippie-ish conventions (folk-tinged song circles, sexual happiness chatter) and ultra-conservative attitudes about gender roles. So while Ethan can find fulfillment as a musician for Jesus, Corinne’s attempt at self-expression in church is reprimanded as “preaching to the men.”

But the secular world has its own compromises and blind spots. Corinne’s gradual move away from her circle of believers (and Ethan) is not presented as an unequivocal liberation. What faith and doubt have in common is that both are hard work, and the hard-won wisdom of “Higher Ground” is that human nature does not necessarily distinguish between saints and sinners.

The only enduring impact comes from Farmiga’s relationship with an earthy free spirit (Dagmara Dominczyk) who sees no conflict between religion, sexuality, a sense of humor, and a deep well of self-worth.

But while their relationship has its powerful highs and lows (plus a leaden fantasy sequence, one of a couple too scattered and fragmentary to feel meaningful), it’s only one thread in a film that’s often so subtle and so careful not to ram its message home that it doesn’t bring across any message at all.

Without buying into blind faith, or condescending to it, either, Farmiga crafts an honest portrait of spirituality in flux that most filmmakers shy away from. Farmiga expertly guides a large and gifted ensemble cast and proves as fearless a director as she is an actress. She lights up Higher Ground and makes it funny, touching and vital.

Higher Ground gives the impression it could go on forever, watching its protagonist’s life unfold bit by bit: There are no big beats, no climax, barely even a sense of building narrative.

There is something remarkable — you might even say miraculous — about the way “Higher Ground” makes its gentle, thoughtful way across the burned-over terrain of the American culture wars.

“Higher Ground” ends on a daring note of irresolution. Earlier, Pastor Bill has made reference to Revelation 3:16 — “because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I shall spew you from my mouth” — a verse that seems unequivocal in its condemnation of uncertainty.

And the expectations of the audience may mirror this impatience. But there is nothing tepid about Corinne’s confusion, and there is also evident passion in Ms. Farmiga’s embrace of it. [via The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and A.V. Club]

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