Movie review: Vera Farmiga’s exceptional Higher GroundOctober 28, 2011
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin
Director: Vera Farmiga
Rating: R, for language and sexual content
Running time: 109 minutes
By Philip Martin
Marked by a low-key intelligence that borders on grace, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground is the rare movie about religion that takes the position of the reluctant nonbeliever — the earnest, intellectually honest person who envies the certainty of the faithful, but can’t convince herself that she genuinely feels the spirit moving through her. As such, it is both far more respectful of religion than most Hollywood products and more thought-provoking than any “faith-based” production to date.
Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ 2002 memoir This Dark World, Higher Ground is the story of a young woman, here called Corinne Walker (played as an adult by Farmiga, as a teenager by the director’s sister, Taissa Farmiga, and as a child by McKenzie Turner), and the spiritual journey she begins when, as a child, she takes up her friendly pastor’s advice to “invite Jesus” into her heart. And she finds her life doesn’t change much. Her mother is still restless and flighty; her father still stolid, drunk and given to grievance; her younger sister still sour and cynical.
When she gets to high school, she’s flattered by the attentions of rock ’n’ roll guitarist Ethan (at first played by Boyd Holbrook, later Joshua Leonard) who looks a little like a sunnier Kurt Cobain (later Tim McGraw) and becomes her first boyfriend and, too soon, her husband. (While the movie isn’t specific about dates, the clothes and other cues suggest the time frame for the film ranges from the early 1960s to the early ’80s.)
A near tragedy drives Ethan into the bosom of a close-knit fundamentalist Christian sect, and Corinne follows willingly, at first thrilled to be a part of a community so obviously and authentically committed to spiritual things. But she has trouble accepting tribulation as another species of blessing, and while she thinks it marvelous that her earthy friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) has the gift of tongues, she wonders why she can’t, at least sometimes, be the recipient of one of the Lord’s more exotic gifts.
Gradually her doubt overcomes her faith, and Corinne discovers the secular world has its disappointments too. Not only is the wonderfully literate Irish mailman married, it turns out that he wasn’t really all that into her either. He was just being nice. Maybe there is something to be said for pretending after all.
Higher Ground is a remarkable film that doesn’t really take sides; it ends on an equivocal note that some are likely to find frustrating but struck me as honest — and even brave. And the performances Farmiga is able to draw from her mostly unfamiliar cast are uniformly in key, generous and informed by human-size emotion. It is set in a world most of us will recognize, a world between the poles, where most of us live.