Movies, both mainstream and independent, usually depict religion as a foreign thing worthy of mistrust and fear—like one of the zombies in The Walking Dead—and the religious as whack-job fanatics. Certainly, the media reports on any faith other than radical Islam with a sort of raised journalistic eyebrow, a sort of mental wink at its audience, like, “You agree, don’t you, that all this is silly?” So the actress and now director Vera Farmiga is to be commended for making Higher Ground, a movie about a woman’s waxing and waning relationship to her Christian faith, such a fully realized, straightforward narrative that never crouches to satirize or mock its various characters’ particular commitment to Christ.
Farmiga plays Corinne, whom we watch grow from a child fully aware that her parents’ (John Hawkes and Donna Murphy) marriage is an unmitigated disaster, to a teen enchanted and impregnated by wannabe rocker Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). Early in their marriage, Corinne and Ethan experience a terrifying moment that becomes a real life-changer: They commit themselves to God and join a folksy religious sect. Echoing an early scene in which the child Corinne (McKenzie Turner) seeks escape from yet another parental fight by submerging herself in the tub, we watch as the grown woman is immersed in baptismal waters. Farmiga films the scene with a sort of reverence for her character’s absolute bliss at this moment, this joining with God. The cinematography, by Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone), adds a vivid sense of realism, that you know these people, that you’ve been to this community.
But as time goes by, Corinne’s faith is tested, in part because she begins to chafe at the paternalistic society in which she resides, but also because she misses out on the ecstasy she wants and expects from the Holy Spirit. When her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) begins to speak in tongues, Corinne is jealous, leading to humorous scenes in which she tries to invoke the same talent while staring in a mirror or driving her car. Why should Annika be so chosen, when Corinne has devoted her life to her faith?
Farmiga, working from a script by Carolyn S. Briggs (on whose book, This Dark World, the movie is based) and Tim Metcalfe, nicely depicts Corinne’s dilemma, without making her church friends seem hateful or ignorant. (There’s even a nice bit of humor when the church fathers learn that clitoral stimulation is part of God’s will—amen!) The movie works so well because at its base is the understanding of free will, which some religions cite as God’s greatest gift to mankind. Corinne is never forced into making any of her decisions, but those decisions are informed by her relationship, when it’s strong and when it’s not, to her faith. As a director, Farmiga is not completely assured, but this effort shows great promise, allowing us to feel Corinne’s ambivalence while respecting her commitment and choices.