Vera Farmiga's acting prowess and generosity of spirit are very much on display in Higher Ground, a sincere attempt to portray the fundamentalist Christian movement within the United States as peopled by human beings and not the monsters of intolerance so much secular American movie art has suggested. Higher Ground is a weird film with some very nice moments, but its odd and offbeat combination of comic touches, serious spiritual subject matter and occasional surrealist interludes never quiet gels. Even with strong reviews and festival exposure, it's hard to imagine this film being embraced by audiences on either side of America's religious divide. Count Higher Ground as a failure, if a noble one, and Farmiga as an actress/director whose primary skill set still dwarfs her secondary one.
Working from a script adapted by Carolyn S. Briggs from her own memoir, Farmiga plays Corinne, a small town mother and member of a minor fundamentalist sect who is slipping into in a deep spiritual crisis as the faith she's strived to cultivate begins to waste away. Her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a former aspiring rocker and devout believer, is sweet, well-intentioned and totally incompatible with the seeker Corinne so longs to be. We see in flashback Corinne's pre-conversion life, and the ever-present Christian undercurrents within her small mid-western town. As she begins to diverge from the sect, the censure she occasionally encounters from her Christian companions is generally reasonable and well meant, but her only true kinship is with her moderately rebellious and altogether charming friend Annika (Dagmara Dominiczyk). When Annika suffers a brain tumor and is left in a post-op vegetative state, Corinne's doubts crystallize. When she starts toward a new life, her reaction is not so much of bitterness toward her past or cliché self-actualization, as it is a profound grief over a paradise lost.
There are many things to admire in Higher Ground. Farmiga is wonderful at handling the other performers; John Hawkes, so terrifying in
Winter's Bone, is absolutely resonant as Corinne's wayward, profane but basically good-hearted father, and Domincyzk's Annika is earthy, sexy and utterly believable-a walking embodiment of Higher Ground's desire to demonstrate how the worldly and the spiritual can coexist easily in some people's hearts. The director's younger sister Taissa Farmiga makes an auspicious and confident screen debut as the younger Corinne.
Higher Ground has great and seemingly unintended difficulty deciding upon and maintaining a narrative voice. The period, ostensibly the 1970s and '80s, is uncertainly handled, with Farmiga's childhood defined by cars with fins and her adolescence by a musician boyfriend who looks and sounds like he listens to Pearl Jam. As an actress, Farmiga is always riveting to watch, but as a director, Farmiga seems unaware that there are other possibilities to filmmaking than merely observing performances. Other than some lovely outdoor scenes of baptism and worship, Higher Ground sets everything inside the flat, high key lighting of a TV talk show, and scenes play out in a generic visual style that renders them vague and waterlogged. If Flannery O'Connor directed a sit-com, it might feel a bit like Higher Ground.
It's ironic that the first press screening of Farmiga's directing debut occurred at Sundance opposite the premiere of Kevin Smith's Red State, an anti-fundamentalist horror movie that is in a sense like the logical extension of the traditional Hollywood approach to matters of the soul. The Jesus Camp approach to belief has its place; fundamentalist Christians are an active social and political force in the United States as well as a spiritual one, and that means every American impacted by the Christian voting bloc's stance on matters like abortion rights and gay marriage has the right to voice an opinion. What Farmiga seeks to remind us of, though, is that millions of basically decent people find meaning and truth in devout religiosity, and that painting a whole population with a single brush is not just artistically inaccurate but morally wrong. If Farmiga can wed that nobility of purpose to more certainty of craft, her next film should be a marvel.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy
Director: Vera Farmiga
Screenwriters: Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Producers: Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Jon Rubinstein and Matt Parker
Running time: 114 min
Release date: Unset