Occasionally (but not always) “well balanced” is a synonym for “flat”
Higher Ground (2011)
Directed by Vera Farmiga
Cast: Vera Farmiga
Increasingly arresting actress Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up in the Air) strikes out in a bold new direction, directing and starring in her first indie feature. The disarmingly intelligent spiritual drama Higher Ground is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, about the author’s born-again life in an independent, evangelical Christian church. The film approaches Christianity from a very different viewpoint—neither pandering to the converted (as most religious films do) nor demonizing the religion (as many Hollywood films are apt to do).
The film introduces us to Corinne, our semi-fictional substitute for Briggs, as a child growing up in the ’60s. Drunk dad (John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone) and hot-to-trot mom (two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy) fuss and fight out on the farm, leaving young Corinne (Farmiga’s talented little sis Taissa) to find the occasional solace in church. There, she answers a call to come to the Lord, courtesy of a hard-sell pastor (Bill Irwin in a nice cameo). As a young girl, though, Corinne doesn’t really understand what it means to “let Jesus into your heart”—she’s just going with the crowd, trying to fit in. A few years later, knocked up and married to a struggling musician, she attributes a nonfatal car accident to godly intervention and signs up for the whole “to be saved, you have to be born again” kit-and-kaboodle.
As the film segues into the mid-’70s, the role of Corinne is assumed by the film’s director. Now in her twenties, Corinne and her family are devoted members of a long-haired, nature-loving band of Jesus freaks. They’re fully baptized in the river, consult Jesus on every decision, listen to church-approved sex lessons on cassette tape and wear a shocking number of Holly Hobby dresses. (What is it with fundamentalist religions and unfortunate fashion choices?)
Despite Corinne’s full-fledged faith, she spends the next 15 or so years struggling to reconcile her unwavering devotion to the Lord with her increasingly imperfect life. The point here is not to find fault with traditional Christianity, but to honestly admit that even the most faithful struggle with those old bugaboos, trouble and doubt. Though the film features some serious drama and a touch of real-world humor, it’s sensitive of the subject matter. The script (penned by Briggs herself), doesn’t paint Corinne’s evangelical community as a bunch of hypocritical sinners. They’re just some well-meaning, guitar-strumming holy rollers who’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy deep in their hearts. There are no villains here.
That is not to say, however, that Higher Ground doesn’t have a certain clear-eyed perspective on religion. The film does take time to point out the sexist attitudes of some of our more fundamental sects—the ones that prefer women be seen and not heard and offer strict instructions on how women are expected to dress and behave. And it admits that religion, even for the most devoted, is no panacea.
In the lead role, Farmiga does stoic fragility quite well. The role she assigns herself is a tough one, mostly because the character is so unsettled. We’re never quite sure where Corinne stands, because she can’t quite tell herself. As the decades spin on, the children keep coming, the marital bliss fades and the Holy Spirit proves less adept at drowning out the other voices welling inside her, Corinne starts to question how much the church has really done for her. There’s no wholesale rejection of faith here, no dramatic tearing down of religious symbols—just an inquisitive examination of personal commitments and institutional beliefs.
Religion doesn’t often get an evenhanded assessment in movies. This has less to do with the “agenda” of the industry and more to do with the fundamentals of drama. Conflict, seismic change and outsized emotions are the tools most storytellers fall back on. Even church-approved films (the golf-as-metaphor-for-Jesus hokum of Seven Days in Utopia, for example) prefer melodramatic plot gimmickry to deep, well-balanced inquiries into faith. Farmiga’s a sharp observer, but her overly balanced treatment of the subject ends up robbing the film of some much-needed impact. Over the course of the film’s three-decade span, we get lots of little moments of doubt and confusion, plenty of subtle examples of internal conflict, but no big “Come to Jesus” moment. And no big “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” moment, either.
This is a thorny issue, and by straddling the line, Farmiga creates a film that’s rather wishy-washy in its ultimate lesson learned. Perhaps she’s tried too hard to be neither pro- nor anti-religion. The title of Briggs’ book alone tells us where we’re headed. But Farmiga prefers to leave the future unspoken. As a mature, objective and incredibly believable character study, the film works. As a drama, it lacks ... revelation.