The delicate and deeply personal divide between faith and doubt is difficult examine on film without tipping the scales too far one way or the other, but in her debut movie Higher Ground actress-turned-director Vera Farmiga proves she’s up to the challenge. Farmiga (Up in the Air) stars in the film, too, as Corinne, a young woman who grows up to embrace a small religious community only to find her beliefs wavering as she grows older. Farmiga is terrific, but her clear vision as a director and her ability to play fair with believers and skeptics alike provides the balance and insight needed to ground the film in thoughtful reality.
Based on the memoir by Carolyn Briggs, who also helped to adapt the screenplay, the film opens during Corinne’s childhood, not bad, not idyllic, just a typical rural upbringing in the 1960s, with simple graces, a somewhat dissatisfied mother (Donna Murphy), a dad who drinks a bit too much (John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone) and occasional grueling sorrow.
Corinne’s first brush with religion comes when she raises her hand during vacation Bible school to indicate she wants Jesus in her life. That simple act doesn’t mean a lot to her then, but it’s a step. As a teenager, she’s more interested in reading Lord of the Flies, writing in her journal and loving a boy than she is in bathing in Jesus’ light, and she ends up a teenage bride and mother (the teenage Corinne is played by Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa, which explains the astonishing resemblance between the women). Then tragedy looms, so close Corinne can feel its fiery breath, and when she’s delivered from it she has to wonder: Is this God’s plan? Did God save me from this unbearable heartbreak? Hallelujah!
From there, the adult Corinne and her husband (Joshua Leonard of Blair Witch Project) join a small and happy religious community, raise their kids, minister to their friends. Becoming a member of a church isn’t merely a spiritual commitment; it’s also a communal one, and Higher Ground is careful to reflect the emotional and familial benefits of being part of a loving and supportive community, something many movies about religion miss entirely.
Still, Corinne feels the stirring of the teenage rebel she once when she’s admonished for being too preachy or contradicting the men. She starts to wonder if God is in fact listening to her prayers, heresy to her bewildered husband. She’s lost — or is she found? While it reflects the comfort religion can provide, Higher Ground is ultimately a proponent of the human spirit, of the individuality and honesty that must be claimed, even at a high price. That’s a lot of substance to stuff into one little movie, but Farmiga makes it fit astonishingly well.
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominiczyk, John Hawkes.
Director: Vera Farmiga.
Screenwriters: Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe. Based on the book by Briggs.
Producers: Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Matthew Parker, Jon Rubenstein.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Vulgar language, adult themes. Running time: 109 minutes. Opens Friday Sept. 9 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Paradise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Palace, Delray, Boynton.