Film Review: Higher Ground

<i>Higher Ground</i> is that rare, rewarding film to tackle the religious question head-on with real intelligence and objectivity.

Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir about her born-again Christian life, Higher Ground tells the story of Corinne, who accepts Jesus as a 1960s teenager, while harboring writerly ambitions, and becomes a very young pregnant bride to Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a singer in a local band. She goes on the road with him, but when a near-fatal accident involves her baby girl, they see this as a miracle of salvation and become members of a fundamentalist Christian community.

Corinne has three more children as her marriage begins to fray, and she gets support from her friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who has a similar wry, somewhat subversive view of the often unintentionally hilarious, subservient church ladies who surround them. Corinne becomes confused about her life’s path, however, when Annika is struck by a debilitating disease, and she further chafes under the strictures of the church and domesticity.

Farmiga makes an impressively sensitive directorial debut with this rare film that tackles religion without any queasy condescension or proselytizing. The questions of faith which obsess Corinne are universal, as are her doubts about the limited nature of being merely marriage partner and parent. It’s also rare in that, like life itself, you never quite know where the film is headed: Situations and character reactions are blessedly unpredictable, authentically messy and complex, and often very funny. The film steadily, quietly builds in intensity until its climax, which is just as wonderfully understated and sensitively observed as everything which has preceded it, packing a punch similar to Nora’s final slamming of that door in A Doll’s House.

With her somewhat melancholy beauty, Farmiga is simply terrific as Corinne, emanating a subdued radiance throughout, always making you aware of the ever-questioning workings of her mind. She’s a generous director as well as actor, and gives every member of her cast a chance to shine as well. Leonard is impressive, with an ably sustained character arc, aging from young, callow rocker to impervious (and impossible to live with) religious zealot. Dominczyk is warmly appealing, and the friendship her character shares with Corinne makes for one of the great—and currently quite rare—true female pal-ships in cinema. Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa, is lovely as the younger Corinne. Also, Farmiga has hired a cadre of some of New York’s best theatre actors—Donna Murphy as Corinne’s mother, Norbert Leo Butz as a fundamentalist leader, Bill Irwin as a preacher—who all make their points with marvelously assured verve.