Higher Ground–Sundance World Premiere

 By Patrick Z. McGavin

 Sundance Film Fest 2011 (Dramatic Competition)–“I love fearless women,” Vera Farmiga said at Sundance. Seven years ago, the actress made her reputation in Debra Granik‘s “Down to the Bone,” parlaying that star-making turn as a working class housewife haunted by her private addictions into a substantial and significant career.  For that part, Farmiga deservedly won the Best Actress kudo from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association

Vera Farmiga continues to astonish, both in front of and behind the camera, with her beautifully textured, strikingly observed feature debut in “Higher Ground,” a contemplative, emotionally probing study of an evangelical Christian whose faith is ruptured by her larger doubt and private rebellion.

Farmiga’s debut is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’s 2002 memoir, “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost,” which Briggs and Tim Metcalfe adapted into a script. The intriguing structure spans some two and a half decades, beginning in the early 1960s and shaped by the 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, the digital photography both lustrous and intimate. 

The early passages have a buoyancy and telling humor, which are expressed through contrasting points of view from the wildly carnal imagination of adolescent Corinne to the bemused though sympathetic portraits of the religious fervor. Farmiga has a soft touch and a beautiful eye for detail. Her direction style is pointed but not condemning, giving her actors sufficient space and pulling the camera back.

Originally attached only as the lead actress, Farmiga then decided to helm the text herself.  As 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 in the vital parts involving 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 tragedy is averted and their young daughter saved during a bus crash, the parents believe it is 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 by the pastor’s wife. 

Corinne’s growing personal attachment to the more subversive (especially sexually) side of her best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) ignites her revolt against the church’s social constraints and marginalizing of women. When tragedy strikes, Corinne openly begins to voice doubt and discontent, a development manifested in her growing distance from her husband (played by the excellent Joshua Leonard as an adult).

Almost inevitably the implied doubts and criticism rupture the conformist and submissive nature of the community and occasions her own slow though steady disengagement from her husband and 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.

“Higher Ground” is not perfect. Farmiga struggles in the first third with the right tone and style.  And some of the stabs at humor, like a sequence involving a highway patrolman, are too aggressively strained.

That said, 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) essay 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.

“Higher Ground” ends on a wholly different note of deliverance that proves enlightening and unforgettable.

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