By Dave Wilson | September 8, 2011
Director: Vera Farmiga
Writers: Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Nina Arianda, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chemus, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sean Mahon, Bill Irwin
When I sat down to watch Vera Farmiga’s new film, Higher Ground, about one woman’s struggle to find her own voice while at the center of a close-knit fundamentalist Christian church, I was unsure what to expect, although I had my suspicions. Unfamiliar with This Dark World, the 2002 memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, upon which this film is based, I approached this assignment with a number of preconceptions and yes, even prejudices. It’s difficult not to react in this way to a film that takes on religion and faith and spirituality because these are such personal matters. Beyond this, Higher Ground would also be an important film about big ideas, as well as the much discussed directorial debut of a versatile and extremely talented actress who some have compared to Meryl Streep.
Imagine my surprise when the white elephant never came to the party. The real shocker may be that Higher Ground is not a film about religion at all, but is a personal story about a woman trying to recognize and acknowledge every aspect of her inner life and personality, those that are valued by her church and those that are not. Higher Ground is never stiff or sober or full of self-importance. In fact, this is a vibrant film, full of life and humor–and even disarmingly funny at times–rich in its depiction of family, community, and friendship. It is also remarkably even-handed in its treatment of faith and personal beliefs, by turns, skeptical, affirmative, or affectionate towards this small band of worshipers, sometimes striking multiple chords within the same brief scene—which mirrors the range of emotions that the heroine, Corinne feels about her life within this congregation.
We first meet Corinne as a young girl in Iowa, devouring books and ideas, writing poetry in her journal, and finally getting knocked up by her boyfriend, Ethan, the lead singer of a local band called The Renegades. By eighteen, she’s married and on the road with Ethan and his band, rumbling around in the back of a van at all hours of the night while their baby sleeps in a cooler. She’s lost, her spirit broken. When they narrowly escape a catastrophic accident, Ethan—who used to make fun of the local “Jesus freaks”—takes up the Bible and declares this to be their second chance. Once again, Corinne goes along for the ride.
In time, Corinne (Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) take up with a small congregation of fundamentalist worshippers led by pastor, Mark (Norbert Leo Butz) who baptizes them in the river and has an earnest, everyday quality that has drawn a loyal group of followers to his side, made up primarily of other young couples. From here, the film chronicles Corinne’s life at the center of this church, as well as her relationship with husband Ethan, as she strives to accept what has been handed to her while the doubts well up and the questions begin to form. She is encircled by the safety and security of this extended family, while also rigidly defined by rules and conventions that govern everything from the way she dresses to how she raises her children or sleeps with her husband. There is little room left for Corinne to have any passions or convictions of her own.
Vera Farmiga and screenwriters, Carolyn Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, find a natural way of detailing Corinne’s internal struggle and the doubts that arise over the course of many years by focusing both on day to day routines and on key relationships, encounters, figures, and foils that throw light on Corinne, her stated beliefs, and the person she could be if left to her own devices. These episodes range from the unexpected visit of her worldly sister, who’s holding a huge stash of coke in her bags, to the deep friendship she has with fellow churchgoer and best friend Annika.
Annika, who is played by the extraordinary Dagmara Dominczyk (Helena From the Wedding), is passionate, mischievous, and sensual, and yet, on the fringe, barely tolerated, much of who she is hidden from view. Her particular forms of worship, unknown to the rest of the congregation, include speaking in tongues (which may or may not be Polish) and lovingly making sketch after sketch of her husband’s penis. Did I mention that this is a funny film?
The other key relationship for Corinne is with her husband Ethan, who wishes Corinne would just fall into line and stop asking so many blessed questions. One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes as Corinne and Ethan finally drop their façades and let all of the anger, resentment, and bitterness boil over. The results are devastating and irreversible, and help give Corinne the conviction to make changes.
Higher Ground is an actor’s film in the best sense. Farmiga surrounds herself with a wonderful ensemble of actors, primarily from the indie film circuit, which includes Joshua Leonard (Humpday), Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris), and John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) as Corinne’s well-meaning, working class Dad.
Although the film works on so many levels and does an admirable job of translating a largely internal conflict to the screen, the film feels uneven, the work of a director who can pull great work from her actors, but who is sometimes uncertain about tone; that is, striking the right balance between lightness and gravity. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of mining a scene just a little further.
Particularly in the film’s early scenes, when Corinne is a young girl, there may be a little too much playfulness and humor to these memories. For instance, there is an old librarian behind a desk literally shaking her head and waving a finger at Corinne when she tries to check out Lord of the Flies and The Second Sex. And when Corinne loses her virginity in a pasture, a snuffling, snorting hog lumbers over to watch. Farmiga scores easy points, but the results feel a little pat and obvious.
There is also an episodic quality to the film before it really finds its stride in the second hour, and we feel as if we’re dropping in for a few moments on small tableaux that exist simply to make a quick point, before moving on again. I kept feeling we were entering scenes too late, and leaving too early. I wanted the film to breathe a little bit more so that some of these hurried scenes had more depth and subtext.
In the end, Higher Ground gives voice to a kind of journey that we don’t often see in the movies. Despite its missteps, it earns most of the laughs and tears, building finally towards a testament that is cathartic, beautifully acted, and genuinely moving.