A satirical yet sensitive portrait of life in an evangelical Christian community, “Higher Ground” marks a startlingly bold directing debut for actress Vera Farmiga. Playing a woman embracing, questioning and eventually abandoning her faith, Farmiga holds the screen with nary a trace of vanity-project posturing, even as her direction steers this full-bodied ensemble drama past some minor missteps into deeply moving and provocative realms. A thoughtful, often uncomfortably intimate look at religious practice made from an agnostic perspective, “Ground” merits attention from a distributor willing to translate its potentially divisive subject matter into an arthouse conversation-starter.
Adapted by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from Briggs’ “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost,” the film is divided into chapters whose titles (“Consumed,” “Wilderness,” etc.) perhaps too neatly reflect the stages of its protagonist’s spiritual journey. But the sum of these episodes is a remarkably rounded portrait of Corinne Walker, whose innate compassion, imagination and restless curiosity about the world place her increasingly at odds with the faith she grew up with.
A child of the ’60s (played at different ages by McKenzie Turner and the helmer’s sister, Taissa Farmiga), young Corinne raises her hand during a church service and becomes a born-again believer, though she reacts to her conversion more with bemusement than acceptance. Highly intelligent, with a passion for reading and writing, Corinne pays little attention to God until after she’s married her high-school rock-star sweetheart, Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). When an accident nearly claims the life of their infant daughter, Corinne and Ethan become convinced of God’s work in their lives and soon join a tight-knit suburban church.
As their family grows, Corinne (now played by Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) become pillars of the community, and apart from Corinne’s failed attempts to reach out to her wayward sister (Nina Arianda), their lives seem fruitful and fulfilled. But the strength of “Higher Ground” is the way it incrementally reveals, over two unhurried hours and a timespan of about 20 years, the doubts and disappointments that can steadily chisel away at one’s deep-held convictions.
Corinne soon realizes her knowledge of Scripture and innate leadership qualities are seen not as virtues but as threats by the church’s male elders. Her close friendship with free-spirited Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) opens her up to the pleasures of erotic fantasy — made apparent in a few overly literal daydream sequences — and forces her to acknowledge the lack of passion in her own marriage. And an unexpected tragedy so shakes Corinne that her faith never recovers, paving the way for a difficult moment of reckoning with her family, her friends and a God who, for all her prayers, rarely seems to answer back.
To her great credit, Farmiga has made a film that neither believers nor nonbelievers will feel entirely at ease with. The camera doesn’t flinch from extended scenes of people preaching, praying and delivering exhortations in everyday conversation, which some may find suffocating and difficult to relate to; still others may object to the way the film elicits laughs at the apparent small-mindedness of its Bible-quoting characters. Yet the director has a real knack for tonal and thematic complexity, and her critique is informed by an essential patience with and respect for the culture she’s depicting. Those who know that culture well may be surprised by just how much Farmiga gets right.
The actress brings her natural warmth, empathy and intelligence to bear on the role of a woman too honest and smart to keep either her joy or her skepticism to herself. Other cast standouts include Dominczyk in the broadly drawn best-friend role, Leonard as Corinne’s frustrated but well-meaning husband, and John Hawkes as her hard-drinking dad. Resemblance between Vera and Taissa Farmiga is so striking that the other older/younger character match-ups aren’t as convincing.
Polished tech package is distinguished by Michael McDonough’s luminous HD cinematography and a soundtrack of hymns deployed with a sincere appreciation for their emotional power. Sharon Lomofsky’s production design (with set decoration by Diana Bregman) and Amela Baksic’s costumes capture the hippie vibe pervading even these houses of worship, though the lack of geographic specificity or contextualizing historical references lends the film a deliberate, somewhat disturbing sense of isolation.