Vera Farmiga was pretty much unknown to me until I caught Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone at Sundance.
She continues to astonish, both in front of and behind the camera, with her beautifully textured, strikingly observed feature debut Higher Ground. It’s a contemplative, emotionally probing study about an evangelical Christian ostracized by family and friends after she expresses doubt and uncertainty.
“I love fearless women,” she said at Sundance. The movie is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’s 2002 memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe adapted the screenplay, incorporating an intriguing structure that spans more than two and a half decades, starting in the early sixties.
Farmiga’s inexperience shows at the start, some fantasy sequences that are fun but somewhat overdone and you also sense her grasping for the right mood and tone. Her technical brilliance as an actor, with an intuitive of how to shape and express ideas and feelings through character, carries the work through the early patches.
Emotionally drawn from formative and peculiar life and times of Corinne Walker (exquisitely played from young adulthood on by Farmiga), the movie opens with a pantheistic sense of rapture as a group of idealistic evangelicals affirm their commitment by undergoing a “re-birth,” or baptism in a communal river.
Farmiga suggestively links the passage with a beautiful dissolve to a young girl submerged in a bathtub. From that point, Higher Ground is an origins tale of life, birth, disappointment and personal tragedy, all evocatively rendered through the precisely drawn imagery of cinematographer Michael McDonough (he also shot Down to the Bone).
The digital photography is both lustrous and intimate. The early passages have a buoyancy and telling humor expressed through contrasting points of view from the wildly carnal imagination of adolescent Corinne yoked to the more bemused though sympathetic portraits of the religious fervor framed within the larger community.
Farmiga has a soft touch and a beautiful eye for detail. Her style is pointed but not condemning, giving her actors sufficient space and pulling the camera back. As a director, she succeeds in transforming the material into a deeply felt personal expression, even casting her exceptionally composed (and very gifted) younger sister Taissa Farmiga for the telling and emotionally important early material depicting Corinne as a teenager.
Vera Farmiga makes vivid and real the girl’s deepening attraction for the magnetic and good-looking rock musician Ethan Miller (Boyd Holbrook), like a beautiful moment when he gives her an airplane ride, using his legs to jet propel her into the air.
Her pregnancy immediately turns their idyll into a very adult realm of marriage and parenthood. When their young daughter saved during a bus crash, the parents believe it an act of divine intervention. As a result, they immerse themselves into a local fundamentalist community.
Farmiga elliptically denotes the passage of time through new births and subtle changes in period details, the clothes and the characters' evolving features. Bound to a very close knit evangelical collective, Corinne develops assured confidence that increasingly collides against the church hierarchy and draws the subtly humiliating rebuke of the pastor’s wife.
Corinne’s growing personal attachment to the more subversive (especially sexually) side of her best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) completes her revolt against the church’s social constraints and marginalizing of women.
When tragedy strikes, Corinne openly begins to voice doubt and discontent, an act of social disobedience that marks her complete rupture from her husband (played by the excellent Joshua Leonard as an adult). Almost inevitably the implied doubts and criticism shatter the conformist and submissive nature of the community and occasions her own slow though steady disengagement from the community that nurtured her.
By visualizing a deepening inability to reconcile her doubts against the church orthodoxy, Corinne makes her disappointment extremely personal, with sometimes horrifying results, like the brutally violently response of her husband to her need for greater independence and freedom.
Every attempt at some kind of reconciliation, like her son’s seventh birthday party, ends awkwardly and disastrously. The movie’s circular structure builds to an extraordinary conclusion where the newly liberated Corinne stands before the congregation to articulate the seeds of her discontent and sharply express her private and personal conflict with the oppressive impulses of the family and the church.It is not hectoring though articulate, thoughtful and considerate that imbues the work with a tremendous emotional force that underlines how the best works of art and discourse almost inevitably are about questions and not answers.
The ensemble acting is fantastic, with sharp turns in small parts by John Hawkes and Donna Murphy as Corinne’s parents. Playing two different pastors, Bill Irvin and Norbert Leo Butz (in the contemporary footage) endow very compelling and even likeable figures made up equal parts theatrical showman, true believers and forceful personalities. By the end they pale compared to the force of nature and conviction of Corinne Walker. The movie is a meditation on a very particular kind of passion and commitment.
Higher Ground ends on a wholly different note of deliverance that proves enlightening and unforgettable.