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Movie Review: Higher Ground (R)

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Length: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Appropriate for ages 15 and up. Characters are occasionally seen drinking, smoking, and toting but not using large quantities of drugs. There is some R-rated swearing and an upsetting moment of domestic violence. The characters, especially (and perhaps surprisingly) the Christians, are quite open about sex, and discuss it openly at some length, occasionally with the aid of hand-drawn diagrams. There are one or two brief instances of live-action nudity and a scene of sexuality keeps the main event out of the frame. But parents, be assured that every bit of “mature” content is in legitimate service of a genuinely mature story.

A Fork in the Path

In her directorial debut, Vera Farmiga shines a warm light on faith and doubt

By Jared Peterson

Higher Ground is a wonderful movie, one of the best so far this year. Honest, observant and complex, it satisfies with an unabashed and genuine affection for, and curiosity about, its characters and their struggles.

“Journey” is such an overused and watered-down label in movie marketing (and criticism), but the patient, novelistic arc of this story of faith found and shaken earns and reinvigorates the term. The film begins with the main character Corrine (Vera Farmiga, who’s behind the camera as well) as a young woman being baptized in a country lake. It then flashes back, lingering at other stations of her pilgrim’s progress: her near-miss with conversion as a girl at a Sunday-school sermon; her swooning, searching, quite typical teenage years; and the narrowly averted tragedy that convinces her and her high school-sweetheart husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard, reaching his highest ground before a slide down into Shark Night 3-D) of the existence of God.

Born again, the couple and their young child find a home among the small congregation of a semirural, neohippie Christian commune. In her twenties now, Corinne is still a girl in many ways. She beams with the well being her faith has brought and brims with questions about God and the world. Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), a vivacious and mischievous believer, becomes her guide and muse, encouraging her to embrace life, art and sexuality within the supposedly full and all-providing bounds of Christian marriage and community. Meanwhile, in pews, parlors and the open air, their caring pastor (Norbert Leo Butz) leads the sussing out God’s truth—which includes women’s subservience to their men. But as Corinne’s passion for her husband subsides and her longing for understanding increases, conflicts arise within the flock. Their answers are kind-hearted but too closed-minded, and their embrace can neither assuage her doubts nor accommodate her growth.

Higher Ground is based on the memoir “This Dark World” by Carolyn S. Briggs, who shares a screenwriting credit with Tim Metcalfe (A Haunting in Connecticut, Kalifornia and—get this—Revenge of the Nerds). The script is bold in its even-handedness and willingness to separate people’s innate goodness from the imperfections of their beliefs and actions. What makes this film so much better than so many others that deal with religion is its openness to complexity. A crisis of faith is meaningless without the real possibility of faith on the other side of it, and here nothing has been predigested or preordained. The film shows questioning (in life and belief) as a natural state and condemnation as an act of weakness and desperation. But still, it makes judgment challenging and certitude impossible. The moral high ground, however fervently it is sought, remains unoccupied.

Vera Farmiga is a magnificent actress, and the exuberant subtlety she brings to her roles translates to her directing as well. She stumbles a bit in the way she stages Corinne’s somewhat arbitrary dips into fantasy—I assumed these flights of imagination to be an aspect of the book Farmiga was reluctant to leave out, but they end up muddying the tone a little. Still, she shows an amazingly sure hand for a first-timer.

I would recommend Higher Ground especially to anyone who has ever felt short-changed or pandered to by a “religion” movie. But as simply a careful and caring drama, Higher Ground is worth your time.

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