Higher Ground is utterly nonjudgmental
Starring Vera Farmiga. Rated PG.
In her deeply impressive and highly entertaining directorial debut, Vera Farmiga travels into several territories rarely traversed in American movies. And she centres the journey by playing its main protagonist, Corinne, a thoughtful rural woman who builds a life on religious principles.
When we meet Corinne, as a teenager bridling under a rigid mother (Donna Murphy) and an ineffectual father (John Hawkes), she’s played by the director’s sister, Taissa Farmiga, in her first film appearance. Yearning for a sense of permanence and community—the place is upstate New York and time the late ’60s, although neither is articulated—Corinne rather haphazardly raises her hand when a local evangelical (Bill Irwin) calls for kids to get “born again”. This triggers a heartfelt yet essentially ambivalent relationship with Christianity, one that carries her through early marriage to a local rocker (initially Boyd Holbrook, then Joshua Leonard) who never quite shares her probing view of the world.
Adapted by writers Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from Briggs’s Iowa-based memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, the film is utterly nonjudgmental in its presentation of a fundamentalist enclave. Sex roles in Corinne’s communal world—especially evident after the Up in the Air star takes over the role—are quietly oppressive, and spirituality is elusive. But the members love to sing, and there’s a real sense of kinship among these longhaired, back-to-the-Earth types.
There is some variety, as presented by her best friend, a free-spirited and more openly sexual immigrant (Dagmara Dominczyk) whose tendency to lapse into rapturous “tongues”—so impressive to Corinne—might sound simply Polish to more worldly ears.
This complex group portrait is already unusual, but even more striking is Higher Ground’s attempt to explore the subtleties of female agency and, even more thorny, desire. There are some small missteps along the way, but this wonderful movie takes it on faith that errors are always a big part of being human.
Watch the trailer for Higher Ground.