Higher Ground

Written by:
Elgy Gillespie
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Dagmara Dominczyk (left) and Vera Farmiga in a scene from “Higher Ground”

Higher Ground

Directed by Vera Farmiga
Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalf, based “This Dark World,” a memoir by Briggs
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy
Running time: 109 min
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
MPAA Rating: R
(See video trailer below.)

How can I praise “Higher Ground” without adding that it belongs firmly to the category known as “independent cinema,” “friends-and-family cinema,” and even “imperfect cinema”?

The film opens as actress-director Vera Farmiga is getting baptized in a river. From the outset her born-again face betrays quizzical surprise and intellectual curiosity.

Her friends and family are getting baptized, too. Like Farmiga’s Corinne, they are hippies dressed like flower children and it’s the seventies.

“Sooner or later, Corinne’s going to have doubts,” you think. She does, and so do we; but not about Farmiga’s directorial debut.

In Farmiga’s film roles (“Up In The Air” is the best known) we felt her questing intelligence. In this heartfelt and unusual first film, we are granted this same intelligence, and also her personal integrity.

With her Victorian Madonna face, Farmiga has a natural simplicity, an un-actressy and low-key sweetness. As she chatted in a San Francisco hotel the other day, everything about her was the antithesis of Hollywood. It helps with this film.

According to the rookie director, the film is about “a woman yearning to come to an authentic sense of herself. And for me that’s the same thing as holiness.” “Higher Ground” also stars ten members of the Farmiga family.

“Eleven, if you count the one that was on the way!” adds mother-of-two Farmiga the other day, where she also expressed amusement that nobody was going to ask her what it’s like to kiss George Clooney.

(Hey, c’mon. As if..!)

“That was my granny at the retirement home, the one whose hands I massaged – and we have Renn’s granny and my mother as extras. My sister Molly plays banjo. My cousin Taissa is young Corinne.” Her baby Fynn stars in a camper cooler mishap. Husband Renn Hawkey co-produced. She advertised for voluntary extras and old cars online. It kept costs to around one million.

“Yeah, cheap labor!” As it became clear that a) Farmiga was over five months pregnant in some scenes, and b) wearing Spanx and hippy tents in others, we realize that making the movie was an even trickier challenge that she rose to in time. We go along with it because of her integrity. Are there lapses in continuity, gaps here and there? Yes, it’s a mildly flawed first work, but nobody’s going to mind.

“Higher Ground” was adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs’ autobiography “This Dark World,” and Tim Metcalfe began the script. Was it hard to get funding for a novel adaptation about a religious crisis? Yes, three years of nothing doing. “But once I began as the director and Renn and I took over the script, things sort of fell into place fast.”

It also helped that Farmiga was fast friends with Briggs and an Oscar nominee.

This is a film about a religious crisis, but it’s not critical, patronizing or moralistic; far from it. You could say that “Higher Ground” is about the half of this country that we don’t often meet, since we independent-moviegoers tend not to move in the same circles.

The childhood scenes are brilliant. Corinne’s mother is sexy and full of life, but so bereft when she loses a child that it wrecks her marriage. Corinne needs a haven from her unhappy home life – that awful stomach-sinking feeling of listening to your parents row as a small child is very real – so when she meets a pastor who asks her to “let Jesus in” she’s saved. (The pastor is Bill Irwin, of San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus.)

All this is simply and powerfully related. So are Corinne’s teenage years, when her boyfriend Ethan is a fledgling rock star on the road with his band. Unplanned pregnancy pushes them to the altar and ends her education. Then a terrible accident plunges their van into a river and nearly drowns their baby, snoozing in a cooler. This miraculous survival brings the couple to Jesus, and then to their river baptism.

The film has some humor, too. In one scene the male church members are asked to look after their wives’ sexual needs, and dutifully watch videos about the location of the clitoris. In another scene, Corinne’s best friend Annika tries to tell her about sex, by drawing penises. In another, Corinne practices speaking in tongues in her own bathroom.

The church members are not on the fringes of society. They are society. They are normal, “nice” people, honest and sincere. They sing frequently, and movingly well. (It was Farmiga’s idea to add more music and hymn singing.)

When Corinne’s doubts start emerging, she reveals an intellect that wants to grow, but the pastor’s wife discourages her with nagging reproofs (“You’re lecturing.”) After free-spirit Annika battles a serious brain operation and is disabled, Corinne plunges into full-blown despair.

“Higher Ground” is a chance to live inside a close-knit fundamentalist American Christian community, not as an anthropologist but through partisan eyes, and to follow a woman’s religious journey within its very tight confines.

Farmiga is attempting something ambitious here. She’s trying to get us to feel what it’s like to belong to such a community, and to genuinely feel that good old-time religion as we also start to question it. Do we buy this? Well, we buy Farmiga in this.


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