Directed by Vera Farmiga
Starring Vera Farmiga and Joshua Leonard
Runtime 109 min.- Rated R
4 Stars (Out of 4)
I spent about 7 years as a devoted protestant. That's not much time when compared to the lifetime commitment made by the lead character in "Higher Ground". However, most of the key events of the movie paralleled events in that 7 year span. During that time I worked as an unpaid intern in a program that would have bestowed upon me an official ordination. Instead of sticking with the program I became less and less convinced of my own beliefs and eventually came to the conclusion that I never really believed in the first place. These days I am perfectly content as a nonbeliever, but the lure of fellowship and a sense of belonging is something I understand completely. It's also something that this movie portrays with authenticity.
If what you know about actors is mostly learned from checkout-aisle tabloids, then you may have never heard of Vera Farmiga. Much like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Farmiga doesn't grab the paparazzi's attention, but they are two of the greatest actors alive today. Hoffman recently made his directorial debut, "Jack Goes Boating", of which he was also the star. "Higher Ground" is Farmiga's debut and also her star vehicle. It takes a great amount of talent and confidence to operate on both sides of the camera at once, or at least to do it well.
Corinne (Farmiga) and her sister grew up in a loving home. All of that changed after her mother had a miscarriage. The movie starts in this tumultuous time that sets the stage for the rest of Corinne's life. In conjunction with (and possibly because of) her family's hard times, she has a early religious experience. During sunday school the little girl raises her hand and officially becomes "saved". Her sister tells her mom the exciting news. She replies, "saved from what?". That's a question that looms throughout the film.
Married and with a child by their early twenties, Corinne and her husband Ethan (Leonard) make road trips with his rock band. This includes plenty of drugs, alcohol and profanity. Not happy with this environment, the young mother vows to never attend a gig with her husband again. That vow barely has time to take effect before the tour bus runs off the road and into a river. Everyone is okay. The couple see this as a clear sign from God. They believe he spared their life and their child's life so that He may know them better.
The movie skips ahead a few years. The evolution from "rolling stone" to fundamentalist protestant is complete. Now with multiple children and steady jobs, both husband and wife are able to quote scripture verbatim. Ethan's roots in the church grow deeper with every moment. Corinne is faithful but struggles with some of the more conservative aspects of her life. After saying a few words in church she is pulled aside and chastised by a senior church member for "appearing to teach the men". Later on she is wearing a maternity dress that draws an innocent compliment from a man. After that brief exchange she is warned against her revealing clothes. Only her shoulders were showing.
While she seems to be able to deal with the repressiveness of the church, her home-life is even more conservative. She is no longer sexually or emotionally fulfilled by her husband. She envies her best friend who, while still Christian, lives a more expressionistic lifestyle. At one point she even sexually fantasizes about her best friend. I don't believe it's from an underlying homosexually, more likely she is just wishing for a companionship and freedom that she doesn't currently have.
Trailer for "Higher Ground"
About halfway through the film a tragedy occurs that completely shatters Corinne's world-view. I don't wan't to give away anything else that happens after that event. What I like about Farmiga's character is her honesty. When she's having a religious experience she lets everyone know. She also lets them know when she feels like she's been abandoned by God. It's that honesty that causes her conflict with the church. While they preach truth, there is an unspoken emphasis on discretion and conformity.
The character's in this film are so completely genuine. There's a level of reality involved that may actually disinterest some viewers. The charm of the Christian community is so accurately portrayed, but so is the repressiveness of that same community. At 38 years old, Vera Farmiga is still an absolute beauty. She's also proven that she is an acting talent beyond reproach. Now she's on track to prove the same thing about her directing talent.
Higher Ground may seem like a fiercely religious film, but it's really a character study. It also works as cultural education. People who haven't grew up in this sort of environment can get a glimpse into a unique world. I'd suggest this film to anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.
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