Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, does something seldom, if ever, done in a film: It takes a non-judgemental approach to born-again Christianity, and explores with actual honesty and sincerity one woman’s lifelong relationship with her faith and identity. It doesn’t skewer religion; it doesn’t depict fundamentalism unfavorably; it doesn’t proselytize, mock, or advocate. The movie would be original for that alone, but Farmiga’s elegant and honest depiction of these characters transcends Higher Ground beyond a religious movie. It’s a superb character film, one that just happens to focus on a character who believes verily in God. It doesn’t hurt, either, that in her directorial debut, Farmiga has the benefit of one of the best actresses around in Herself, and Farmiga coaxes one hell of an outstanding performance out of her.
Set largely in the 70s, Carolyn Briggs’ and Tim Metcalfe’s screenplay is based on Briggs own memoir about a woman struggling with doubts she has with God and her faith. It follows Corinne who, initially, like so many children buys into Jesus long before she understands what she’s buying into. But after her mother loses a child, which eventually results in the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, Corinne drifts off the God bandwagon.
As a teenager and aspiring writer, she meets Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a scruffy good-natured musician, and they marry before they understand much about the world or each other. When Ethan’s tour bus plunges into a pond and their baby is miraculously saved, the two find God, and they find him hard. Suddenly, their life is almost subsumed by their faith, by church services and Bible study and hippie Christian songs. Corinne’s faith, even as she embraces it, feels suffocating to her. Beyond the doubts it brings, it often limits her identity, isolating her from the feminist movement surrounding her, from expressing her sexuality, and from enjoying a fulfilling sex life. Her identity struggles also lead to estrangement with her husband, a good guy who is often blinded to her needs by his own spirituality.
At times touching, with occasional doses of humor, Farmiga’s debut effort is sure-handed and smart, and with the exception of one ham-fisted metaphor and a few misplaced daydream sequences, it’s a sterling achievement. Farmiga’s directing style mirrors her acting: Elegant, wise, knowing, sly, and occasionally sexy. It’s also the rare film that Christians and non-believers can enjoy, relate to, and appreciate equally, not as people of or without faith, but as people who enjoy good movies.