REVIEW: Higher Ground

4 10 2011

Anyone even willing to touch on the deep questions of religion that still loom large in life starts off a winner in my book.  The mere hint of discussing God on film sends people either hiding under a rock or complaining on the Internet, so it really takes someone with grace, eloquence, and poise to give their take in modern times.  Vera Farmiga, both acting on screen and directing behind the camera, lends a respectful voice to the conversation in “Higher Ground,” a movie about a woman truly wrestling with her faith.

As a first feature, it’s  impressive, yet there are some typical novice errors like uneven tone and inconsistent pacing that keep the film from being an impressive movie in its own right.  But Farmiga’s movie is still an effective in the sense that it asks – no, demands – its audience to ponder some incredibly deep questions.  She directs the film in such a way that it falls outside the normal pendulum of “religious” movies.  It definitely does not paint the best portrait of a Christian community, but it also doesn’t disparage them, either.  It doesn’t openly profess faith, but it doesn’t profess atheism.  Farmiga remains honest, neutral, and remarkably even-keeled so her movie can inspire conversation as opposed to complaints.

“Higher Ground” could easily be a sister to John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film “Doubt” as they both explore how faith-based communities can produce doubt in its members.  Here, Farmiga’s Corinne feels tremendous social pressure throughout her life to feel saved.  While she professes, she constantly doubts the veracity of her faith from her days in Vacation Bible Study.  Corinne does not live an easy life with a teenage pregnancy resulting in a shotgun marriage.  Her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) subscribes to the very old-fashioned lifestyle promoted by their New Testament church, one that makes women so subordinate that they aren’t even allowed to teach men about the Bible.

It’s hard to be sure whether the community or forces from within cause Corrine to doubt these societally constructed convictions, but doubt them she does.  Farmiga seems to favor the interpretation that the church is to blame, and even as a Christian myself, I can’t deny that the institution of religion has a remarkable ability to surpress faith.  More time is dedicated to showing how Corrine is being stifled in her attempts to individuate and break free than how she personally struggles, which is really a shame.  Farmiga’s two “Oscar scenes” of questioning God and herself are incredibly moving and resonant.  These scenes are bound to stir up some emotion inside of everyone who has asked these questions of themselves … which is exactly what Farmiga seems to want.  B / 

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