Not to get all “Hollywood is full of godless heathens” on you, but it’s rare to see religious faith addressed with sincerity in a studio production. Main characters in movies usually aren’t religious at all unless it’s central to the plot, while religious supporting characters are generally naive, intolerant, or nutty. Then you have the movies, usually independent productions, that are all about promoting religious devotion. These tend to be more well-intentioned than they are well-made.
Given these circumstances, it’s all the more impressive that “Higher Ground” exists. Based on Carolyn Briggs’ memoir “This Dark World,” it’s a refreshingly honest and uncynical examination of Christian faith, viewed through the eyes of a believer who’s as sincere about her faith as she is about her doubts. Rather than insist that people of faith either are or aren’t correct in their beliefs, the film takes the more nuanced view that a spiritual awakening can be valid for the person who experiences it even if he or she doesn’t adhere to any particular religious orthodoxy afterward. I believe in God, and I found the movie respectful of spirituality, even inspiring in its way. Sitting next to me was a friend and colleague who’s agnostic, and he thought the movie was fantastic. A movie that addresses religion head-on without alienating one side or the other is almost miraculous.
“Higher Ground” is the very assured directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga, who stars as Corinne, the fictionalized version of the memoirist. As a young adult in about 1970, Corinne is baptized into a sect of Christian hippies. Led by the generically charismatic Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin), the congregation looks like a production of “Godspell” but is doctrinally much more conservative. Women are instructed to be obedient to their husbands in all things and aren’t allowed to preach in church. Corinne and her husband, a sweet but unserious rock musician named Ethan (Joshua Leonard), are born again after a sobering near-death experience, but flashbacks to Corinne’s childhood and teen years show that she has always been a believer, wise beyond her years. (The grade-school Corinne is played by McKenzie Turner, the teenage one by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s sister.)
Corinne’s childhood is relevant. Her mother, Kathleen (Donna Murphy), is flirtatious and frivolous, constantly at odds with her father, CW (John Hawkes). Corinne’s sister, Wendy (played at different ages by Taylor Schwencke, Kaitlyn Rae King, and Nina Arianda), goes to Sunday School with her but is as cavalier about religion as their mother is. You got saved today, honey? That’s nice.
As an adult and a new member of Bud’s congregation, Corinne is content at first but gradually feels out of place. When she shares her testimony of the Lord in a church setting, one of the women afterward cautions her that she “came close to preaching!” Gotta be careful not to overstep your bounds, sister! Corinne finds a kindred spirit in Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), a fellow congregant who loves art and literature, and who expresses her own artistic sensibilities by drawing pictures of her husband’s penis. Comforted to know that she’s not the only devout Christian who doesn’t fit the regular mold, Corinne is simultaneously discomforted to realize she may not fit in here. Her own husband, along with the rest of the congregation, is intellectually uncurious and not interested in anything other than Jesus.
Thanks to an efficient, well-crafted screenplay (written by Briggs and Tim Metcalfe), the film manages to cover nearly two decades of Corinne’s life without dragging, and still come in under two hours. Moreover, Farmiga’s restrained directorial style (which matches her acting style) lets the film make its points subtly, often metaphorically. Late in the film, we see that Corinne’s parents have split up, but we learn that fact organically, without it being spelled out. Most of the movie is like that: We spend time with the characters, we see them living their lives and practicing their faith, and we get to know them. Believers and non-believers alike will find much to appreciate in this insightful, engrossing drama.
A- (1 hr., 50 min.; )