Films like Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground just aren’t made that often these days. It’s a real thought-provoker, for one thing, and its subject matter — the religious trajectory of a woman from childhood to adulthood — isn’t one that studios are chomping at the bit to finance. It was made for next to nothing, apparently, so if Sony Classics takes a small financial hit, well, they’ve got Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to fall back on. In the meantime, they’ve allowed Farmiga — a formidable, Oscar-nominated actress (Up in the Air) — the opportunity to craft a patient and observant directorial debut.
Farmiga didn’t have a hand in the screenplay, which was co-penned by Carolyn Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, but she must’ve found something personal in the material to decide that it was worth trying her hand at directing. She stars in the film, too, as Corinne, who is getting baptized, as an adult, at the outset before the film takes us down memory lane.
We see Corinne as a child (McKenzie Turner), when she first develops an interest in Christianity at the hands of Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin). The story then tracks her teenage years, where she’s played by Taissa Farmiga as an educated and independent woman who enjoys the company of books and blank sheets of paper upon which she can transcribe her thoughts. (You can really tell, by the way, that Taissa and Vera are sisters — their resemblance is striking. I even momentarily entertained the possibility that the film had achieved some mind-blowing feat in age-manipulating technology.)
Corinne’s ambitions as a forceful writer are sidelined when she and her longtime lover Ethan (Joshua Leonard) begin a life devoted to child-raising and churchgoing. Ethan, too, shelved ambitions of his own — throughout the early stages of their relationship, he headed a soft-sounding rock band. His talents wind up being used at the service of his faith.
On occasion, Higher Ground teases the viewer with satirical episodes, and these instances generally provide the dose of humor that they’re designed to create. Overall, however, Farmiga and the screenwriters treat their material with diligent nobility. They rarely stray from the course of depicting religious discovery in an honest and meaningful way. The passage of Farmiga’s character carries impact, and I think the scenes of backstory were implemented well in this respect. They don’t drag, and they provide reference points later in the film when there are moments worth analyzing.
There are two particular scenes in the film that highlight a distinct directorial touch from Farmiga. The first is a heated confrontation between Corinne and her husband that takes place within the stuffy confines of the family automobile. It’s directed with shattering intimacy. The second is a birthday party scene, late in the film, that’s really the best scene in the whole thing. It features a wounded performance from John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene), and the overall effect is absolutely crushing.
Though the screenplay is orderly at times and the conclusion seems to be reached with a small lack of conviction, Higher Ground remains notable for its confrontation of a topic that’s so rarely probed to these depths in modern American movies. For willing participants, this is a real conversation-starter. It’s not as profound or ambitious as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but it shares a similar level of philosophical absorption and intrigue. There are weighty questions at stake here — maybe unanswerable ones — that aren’t dealt with regularly, and it’s a pleasure to see an established talent such as Farmiga diving into these oft-unexplored waters.
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