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Higher Ground

September 25, 2011
Higher Ground

Remember when I complained that Christian movies tend towards the abysmal? Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground is the exception, although I’m pretty sure the evangelical backers of movies like Seven Days in Utopia or Soul Surfer would disclaim it as Christian. But objectively it is a story of faith, however troubled, and particularly of one woman’s faith as it matures and develops.

Corinne — played by Farmiga herself as an adult, and by McKenzie Turner and Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa as a child and a teenager, respectively — grew up bright and inquisitive, although sometimes stifled. We start by watching how she grew up in the late 1960s, started a family with less-than-intellectual, wannabe rock guitarist Ethan (Joshua Leonard), and how they came to be baptized into the non-denominational church which forms the background of their lives from then on.

It’s hard to place the church, exactly. The preacher, Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin), has an evangelical, Church of Christ patter; the smarmily-scolding elder “sister” Deborah (Barbara Tuttle) seems drawn straight from the Holiness movement; and Corinne’s friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) brings a very Charismatic strain, if not downright Pentecostal. Whatever the details, it does provide a context to Corinne’s life from which she draws strength and purpose.

But as life goes on Corinne struggles with the faith others seem to find so easy. Her sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) is troubled, and her closest relationships are taken away. But underlying everything else she wants more than her community will allow her — more independence, more expression, and more inspiration — and day by day that gnaws at her.

It would have been easy for writer Carolyn S. Briggs to turn this into a simple, anti-religious story, and I’m certain that many viewers will either read that sentiment in or project it onto the film. But despite her struggles, Corinne never actually loses her faith. It changes, to be sure, to the point I don’t see her being able to stay with the community as it stands by the end, but it broadens rather than disappearing. And even those who seem to work against Corinne are portrayed sympathetically.

Much of the credit is due to Farmiga’s stellar first outing as a director. Her acting career has put her into a great position to get performances out of her entire cast. Not only does Farmiga do an excellent job behind the camera, she gives yet another wonderful performance of her own. Corinne is a fully-lived character, growing and changing as the arc of the story progresses, with a nuance we see all too rarely. Dominczyk, too, is an excellent support, and I’m eager to see more of her.

I can definitely see this not being everyone’s cup of tea, but Farmiga scatters her cinematic seeds as best she can. Some, I’m sure, will fall on stony audiences, unwilling to bear a word against religion; some will fall amongst those who will choke the life out of it rather than see a word in favor; but with a receptive audience they will find fertile ground, and will bear great fruit.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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