Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Taissa Farmiga, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Irwin
Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
The directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), Higher Ground is everything I'd hoped it would be.
Based upon a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, Higher Ground is the story of one woman's adventure with an evangelical group. At times the finest Hollywood film to deal with Christianity in quite some time, there are other times when Higher Ground seems to tiptoe around the issues that Corinne (Farmiga) is facing and that lead to her ultimately questioning her faith.
Corinne is a child of the 60's raised in an unhappy family who ends up marrying Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a singer/songwriter for a teen band who never quite makes it as a musician. When they experience a near tragedy with their young daughter, the two are drawn to a small fundamentalist faith community as a way of seeking refuge and answers. However, it's not long before Corinne's doubts begin bubbling up and after the loss of her friend (Dagmara Dominczyk) and with the group's conservative tenets increasingly butting heads with her own thoughts and beliefs.
It's refreshing to see a film about the faith journey that doesn't actually take sides, though one can also say that the script that's co-penned by Briggs and Tim Metcalfe doesn't delve deep enough into the issues for sides to actually be taken.
As both a film critic and a minister, it has long been my desire for a film to deal honestly, authentically and humanely with the subject of one's crisis of faith. While Higher Ground doesn't do so perfectly, it does so with a remarkable tenderness and respect for all involved. While this film doesn't portray its fundamentalist community in the same way as did a similarly themed recent indie called Paradise Recovered, the two films share a rich humanity and willingness to gently and humorously explore the complexities of life inside organized religion and how it can become awfully disorganized.
Farmiga's performance as Corinne is a bit jarring and disjointed at times, a compliment given the multiple layers and disjointedness of Corinne's 20-year spiritual journey that, in many ways, leads her away from organized religion and into a deeper spiritual journey. As a younger Corinne, Farmiga cast her own younger sister Taissa Farmiga, who gives an intelligent and insightful performance that perfectly lays the groundwork for everything that the elder Farmiga does later in the film.
One of the truly beautiful things about Higher Ground is how it so honestly avoids dramatics in portraying how traumatic it is for Corinne to begin questioning her faith when her faith is, in very tangible ways, virtually everything that defines her life. To question her faith is, for Corinne, to question every aspect of her existence from her marriage to Ethan to her friendships to herself as mother, homemaker and lover. Joshua Leonard does a fine job as her husband, but truth be told Higher Ground seems intended as a film told from the female perspective and it is the film's actresses who leave the strongest impressions (with the possible exception of John Hawkes, whose performance as young Corinne's father is unforgettable).
While Farmiga does quite the fine job here, Dagmara Dominczyk serves up the film's finest performance as Corinne's true soul sister, Annika. Annika and Corinne share their lives with tremendous vulnerability, and Dominczyk's performance is sizzling with all the energy and emotional resonance that gives the film much of its force. While the film occasionally dips too easily into sexual humor, it does carry a hippie vibe, it's the relationship between Annika and Corinne that will likely resonate the most for audiences.
D.P. Michael McDonough's camera work is warm and comforting, adding credibility and understanding to Corinne's comfort within this faith community. The film also features excellent original music from Alec Puro, while Sharon Lomofsky's production design nicely weaves together the 60's hippie vibe with a design that easily reflects the conservative values of this fundamentalist community.
How the film ultimately resolves itself is, to Farmiga's credit, as open to interpretation and understanding as is the great majority of Corinne's spiritual journey. However, it seems there comes a moment in every spiritual moment where one gains clarity and perspective either through experiencing tremendous joy or through something that simply cannot be explained away by a scripture, a pastor or by a pop religious thought.
That's really, I suppose, the beautfy of Higher Ground. In refusing to take sides, Higher Ground really allows the story to be about the fullness of Corinne's faith journey through all its ups and downs, insecurities, doubts, questions and crises. Had Farmiga taken Corinne's personal exploration just a tad deeper, Higher Ground would have been one of the best films of the year. Higher Ground is still a rather remarkable achievement for the first-time director.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic