The landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off-kilter when one of their own begins to question her faith. Inspired by screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, This Dark World, the film tells the story of a thoughtful woman's struggles with belief, love, and trust – in human relationships as well as in God.
Certain subjects, it seems, are to be avoided or else, if not, they are mocked senseless. The movies, like family BBQs, tend to take religion and politics as no-go areas, and if this stuff pops up, it’s the jokester that gets more of the floor than the earnest type with actually something to say.
Conventional wisdom suggests that everyone has strong feelings about both subjects, so why does social etiquette (and pop culture) demand that the best thing to do is to shut up? Is that about embarrassment, a wary acknowledgment that such conversation demands mutual respect and intimacy? Is it fear? Is there another, richer, brighter tone, one more supple and complex than derision or celebration that can form as a basis for such conversations – in the movies and in life, for that matter?
Movies have always dealt with religion (and politics) in a coded way, and when they don’t, they often get preachy, or smug and guarded. What’s so good and valuable about actor Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, a frank and good-natured movie about Christians, is that there seems little fear of the subject (and for that matter, the audience) and the tone is gentle and kind and free of scepticism, even when it’s critical.
Based on the book This Dark World, a memoir of a middle-class suburban woman called Carolyn S. Briggs, Higher Ground has the episodic sprawl of a TV movie and the low-key dramatic dynamics of so-called 'indie’ cinema. It covers a lot of territory, from the '60s and into the '90s. (Or at least it looks like it.)
It’s full of small human moments, the stuff of so much 'women’s fiction’: sexual dissatisfaction and erotic pleasure through fantasy; boredom with domestic routine; and the sense of entrapment that comes with the roles of wife and mother, carer and lover. But here, all this stuff is seen through the prism of a Christian fundamentalist. Which is to say that God, or at the very least scripture, plays a part; it leads to a lot of confusion, unhappiness and some joy for quite a few of the characters here.
Some critics have complained that Farminga shifts into satire at times, especially about sex. (There’s a very funny bit where, at a meeting of the church group, the pastor advices his gathering of married men to seek out the clitoris since God wants Us all to enjoy sex.) Still, this kind of stuff never plays like a cheap shot. For me, it seemed grounded in Farminga’s hero character, Corinne, an expression of her powerful imagination and suppressed wit. Farminga plays Corinne as an adult (her sister Taissa, plays her, wonderfully, as a teen), and it’s a whopping great part: funny, sad, confused and full of longing, Corinne is full of doubt, but she wants so much to believe and to able do achieve Faith"¦ but her way. Corinne gets great support from her best pal, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyck), who leads a kind of 'double-life": outwardly demure, and obedient, but secretly rebelling.
Much of this sounds, at least in cold print, a little routine, but it plays with a spark that’s quite stirring. A lot of this is to do with the way Farminga directs the actors; most of the men here – like Corinne’s dad John Hawkes and husband Joshua Leonard – are flawed, even violent characters, but the movie doesn’t demonise them. And the women of Corinne’s congregation are sharp creations, too; outwardly loving, but we know and can see that despite appearances and (their piety) they are far from complete. At times, I was reminded of Coenesque emotional awkwardness; at others, the film feels as loose and real as early Jonathan Demme.
The movie’s best scenes are those where Corinne stands before her peers and tries to explain what she has found in scripture. This is forbidden, in their sect, since only men can preach. Every time Corinne is chastened by the church seniors, the moment gives rise to a feeling of such emotional violence, it’s shattering. It’s not just the sexism; it is, too, the feeling that Corinne’s very identity is what is at stake.
Farmiga has etched something deeply personal and idiosyncratic here: a movie about a character who is simply trying to understand herself and her world – and that opens up a lot of angst and conflict. Most movie heroes already know the answers and act accordingly. The best thing about Higher Ground is that is does not condescend; it accepts Corinne’s humanity and her struggle as something true and real. Maybe it’s because it’s a film that understands that no matter what, we all need to believe in something.