"Higher Ground" takes viewers to precincts little seen in American movies, to the heart of a small Christian community where people share the struggles of daily life as part of a tight-knit congregation.
Depictions of fundamentalism in popular culture too often belittle the faithful by portraying them as repressed, easily led or as cannon fodder in the culture wars. "Higher Ground" resists these facile cliches to show one woman's very real struggle to hold on to her faith and her family even as she is pulled in different directions.
Based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, "Higher Ground" follows the life of Corinne Walker, first as a young girl, then as a teenager, then as a wife and mother trying to reconcile herself to life as a bit of a skeptic in a community of ecstatic believers.
Film adaptations of memoirs frequently suffer from the inability to reveal the inner lives of their protagonists. Some resort to excessive voiceover or needlessly expository dialogue. In "Ground," director Vera Farmiga (who also stars as the adult Corinne) achieves a kind of quiet introspection by focusing on the gaze of the actors, letting us see what they are seeing. In flashbacks, we watch young Corinne (McKenzie Turner) see a minister take notice of her mother's body at a Bible school class.
In one melancholy scene, the teenage Corinne (played by the director's daughter Taissa Farmiga) grimaces her way through an uncomfortable and awkward sexual initiation with the earnest, musical, worshipful student whom she will eventually marry.
As a grownup, Corinne's gaze frequently lingers on the effortless, affectionate touches that pass between marital partners. She and husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) don't share an easy bond. They joined the religious community after a near-tragic accident put them off their dreams of personal fulfillment through music and literature.
But as the film progresses, it's clear that Corinne is plagued by doubts about her faith in God and about her commitment to her community. These are exacerbated by the limits placed on her as a woman in this community. In one telling scene, she gives a personal witness at a meeting, only to be chided later by the wife of the group's pastor for crossing the line into preaching.
"Higher Ground" does reach for more than it can grasp. The movie races to incorporate not just Corinne's connection with her faith, but also her adult relationship with her adult sister and her divorced parents. This narrative rush undercuts the meandering - and very lifelike - trajectory that guides the characters in the movie's first half.
"Higher Ground" is a movie about faith, yet it doesn't carry itself with any false piety. Characters curse, have sex and entertain impure thoughts about their friends and neighbors. It pays its subjects the compliment of engaging with the messy details of everyday life - and because of that the film will likely have resonance with viewers, regardless of their religious practice.
TITLE: "Higher Ground"
CREDITS: Directed by Vera Farmiga; written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs.
RATING: R for some strong language and sexual situations
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS