Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground is a rich, sometimes rewarding, yet deeply flawed work that sometimes gets things so right that it’s hard not to forgive it when it doesn’t. Unfortunately, one of the things that most needs forgiving is too big to overlook. Here we have a movie that tackles a subject not much seen in the movies: Religious faith. There are plenty of films that advocate for the filmmaker’s particular brand of religion, and there’s no shortage of films that celebrate how great it is to have faith—most of which insist their specific interpretation of faith is based on fact rather than belief. And you can find almost as many films concerned with satirizing faith, ritual and religion on general. But serious films about people tussling with their faith in an open, forthright manner—well, that’s something else altogether.
Farmiga’s film—based of Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World and from a screenplay by Briggs and Tim Metcalfe—is the story of Corinne (played by Farmiga as an adult, by her younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, as a young woman, and by McKenzie Turner as a child). Corinne is someone who invited Jesus into her heart at a very young age—at an age, one might argue, when she could only have the vaguest idea what all of this means. She accepted this, however, because—as she puts it later—she “thought” she heard Jesus knocking, as per the suggestion of her pastor.
Then as Corinne gets a little older, all this kind of drifts off to the side. She meets a high-school rock musician, Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), and gets pregnant. Touring with the band—and their infant child—they have an accident and the child is nearly killed, prompting the pair to take up with a vaguely pantheistic but clearly evangelical group (in the early ‘70s we’d have called them Jesus freaks) in an attempt to mend their ways. The message seems to stick with Ethan, but Corinne wants more. She not only wants to believe, she wants to know it—or at least feel it—as fact. She’s fascinated by—and a little jealous of—her generally lively and even somewhat outrageous friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) and her tendency to “speak in tongues.” She even tries to induce the state in herself, but to no avail.
Ironically, it is Annika’s ill-fate—an operation for a brain tumor leaves her in a virtually vegetative state—which provides one of the key points that drives a wedge between Corinne and her faith. While everyone—including Annika’s husband—are matter-of-factly accepting God’s will and singing “It Is Well With My Soul,” Corinne realizes that all is very much not well with her soul. But, no, it doesn’t end with that. There’s a good deal more—not in the least because Corinne’s falling away from the faith is neither glib nor easy. This is a portrait of a woman who desperately wants to be able to believe—who wants the apparent easy acceptance of it all and the happiness she sees in the others in her congregation. The problem is that something prevents her from having that sort of faith.
This is all deep stuff—and it’s to Farmiga’s credit that it’s all handled with a minimum of anger and only a small amount of what feels like condescension. Corinne doesn’t rail and storm, she doesn’t make a big anti-religion statement, she merely sadly addresses her lack of the “gift of faith.”
With all this going for it, it’s unfortunate to have to note that quite a few things about the film don’t work. I don’t care that some of the symbolism can be downright dopey (the business with the dogs, for instance, looks like the movie’s about to turn into The Omen). Those things might be giggle-worthy, but they pass. Joshua Leonard as the older version of Ethan is a much bigger problem. I suppose it’s fair to say that, yes, the born-again Ethan is on the uninteresting side, but casting an actor who is even duller than the character is simply wrong-headed. But the really big problem is the central character of Corinne. Here, it’s not the fault of any of the three actresses playing the role. It’s something deeper—something along the lines of whether or not the character is really all that interesting.
Even with those things working against it, Higher Ground is an audacious directorial debut for Farmiga, and offers another first-class performance from her. Her face in the “It Is Well With My Soul” scene and at the film’s end is a thing of wonderment as a range of complex emotions play across it. The film itself deserves praise for soberly addressing a thorny topic without pandering to either side of the issue. Rated R for some language and sexual content.