Higher Ground

Emotionally shattering tale of a Fundamentalist Christian who struggles to keep her beliefs in a religiously tight-knit community. The movie is loosely based on novelist Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost. She also co-wrote the screenplay. Given that ominous title, I would’ve expected a much more critical take. Higher Ground is surprisingly sensitive of a religion often caricatured in contemporary films. This year alone has seen it an object of ridicule in both Paul and Red State. The script goes a long way in dislodging the stereotypes of Christian Fundamentalism. It’s the unique perspective that makes the film so utterly original. Never mocking, it’s a vividly written and moving account about a convert.

The story is highlighted by one great performance after another. Vera Farmiga is Corinne, the star. Her existence is presented from little girl to adulthood. The many phases are presented in detail and we get a sophisticated portrayal of the woman. It’s positive, but she struggles with her faith. How and why is a question best answered by watching, but it’s a lifelong process. These events inform the background of her religious odyssey. Also memorable is actress Dagmara Dominczyk as her best friend Annika. As a fellow member of her church, her character is unlike anything I have ever seen. Vibrant and sexy, she is not your typical depiction of a “holy roller.”  She’s affected by the religious tradition of speaking in tongues, “episodes of religious ecstasy marked by incomprehensible speech occurring in a trance state.” Corinne is bewildered by the practice. Her husband, a devout believer as well, regards it with disdain. That’s remarkably unexpected. Without having any understanding of the habit, it’s still something she wishes she could experience. Her desire to be closer to God is rather stirring.

The narrative features a female protagonist and it has a distinctly female voice. It will be hard for the picture to find a mass audience, but that would be a shame. It in no way affects the universality of the emotions. In her marriage problems, the voice is clearly hers, yet she objectively reveals flaws in her own commitment. Special mention should be given to actor Joshua Leonard as her husband Ethan. His nuanced performance makes his frustration with his wife’s struggle, reasonable. Nevertheless, it’s still told from Corinne’s point of view. Higher Ground marks Farmiga’s directorial debut. I suspect it wont be the last time she directs. Her talent is rather self assured for a first film. She is probably best remembered for her critically acclaimed work in the 2009 comedy-drama Up in the Air, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She does an even more impressive interpretation here.

Higher Ground is challenging. Fundamentalist Christianity is a difficult subject. It’s pretty foreign. Usually the source of comedy, it becomes a tough sell as sensitive drama. Few people will brave this story. But for those with an open mind, they’re in for a take on a subject that is wholly original. People will ultimately take away many different reactions to her journey. But writers Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe imbue their characters with dignity and respect. That’s what keeps the viewer riveted. This is a deeply poignant drama that approaches its subject with intelligence and sensitivity. Make no mistake, this is not a glorified tale. It’s heartbreaking. But the struggle presented here is honest and unexpectedly life affirming.

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8 Responses to “Higher Ground”

  1. Mark, if you haven’t you need to see another film I showed in my class, Nancy Savoca’s HOUSEHOLD SAINTS (1993) which follows first a middle class Italian-American couple (Tracey Ullman and Vincent D’Onofrio) in post-war New York City and the husband’s religiously superstitious Catholic mother, and then (after they have a child), it follows their daughter Teresa first as a young girl fascinated by Catholicism and then devoted as a young adult in Catholic school (Lili Taylor) :)

  2. First time I read about this film thought it would be boring as all hell, but reading your review, I’m intrigued. Plus, I love Vera Farmiga.

  3. Was listening to an interview with Vera about this movie about a week or two ago and it was interesting that she, Vera, had a hand in directing as well as acting in this movie. I’m glad you reviewed this so well as I was about to skip this one as I’m not usually compelled towards religious topics, especially one that looks to be about religious fanaticism in the conservative and backward deep south. I’m in love with Vera…she’s gorgeous. Definitely will see this now as it’s moving up on the wist list.

  4. Vera did a great job acting and directing. I saw the preview and did not want to see this. Glad I did. It was such a pure and honest movie. Really worth the viewing.

  5. This was actually showing at the only art house theater near me this weekend and I couldn’t make it. So disappointing. Excellent review.

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