It’s refreshing to encounter a film that treats religion seriously but without smugness, as Vera Farmiga’s does. But “Higher Ground,” based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir about the time she spent in an insular, rigorous Christian congregation, tells its story in such a fractured, elliptical fashion that you’re likely to leave it more confused than enlightened, as befuddled as the heroine is after her experiences.
When we first meet Corinne, she’s a young girl (McKenzie Turner) who almost offhandedly declares she’s been born again to her minister (Bill Irwin) at a children’s gathering. But in high school (now played by Vera’s younger sister Taissa) she falls in with campus rocker Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), and together they adopt a loose, hedonistic lifestyle, which continues into their marriage. It’s only after a near-fatal accident that they turn to religion together.
Moving ahead some years, Corinne (now Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (now Joshua Leonard) are members of a fundamentalist community living an insistently simple and rigorous life. For the women it’s an existence of extreme modesty and subjection to their husbands, though Corinne and her closest friend, the ebullient Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) occasionally challenge the status quo in private, as with their interest in speaking in tongues, which their pastor frowns upon.
But Corinne’s faith is shaken by a number of events. One is a visit from her troubled sister (Nina Arianda), who refuses to accept the community’s restrictions and soon departs. Another is Annika’s sudden illness, which has a devastating impact on her. More and more she feels hemmed in by a mode of life that, among other things, requires women to remain silent in church, even though she feel compelled to share her religious insights, and moves an older woman in the congregation to chastise her for wearing a dress that shows a bit too much shoulder. Eventually her uncertainties cause a rift with Ethan—and the community as a whole.
What’s good about “Higher Ground” is that it neither ridicules the congregation to which the couple belongs nor exalts it in the fashion an overtly “Christian” movies do. Instead it paints a portrait of the group that mingles observations on its strengths, its oddities and its painful problems. The members might seem slightly absurd to non-believers with their mood of wide-eyed naivete, but they’re presented not as wacky or silly, but as people sincerely searching for spiritual fulfillment. Yet their peculiarities aren’t overlooked, and are often the stuff of some gentle humor. There’s an amusing sequence, for instance, in which the men are instructed, rather clumsily, about how to give sexual pleasure to their wives—instruction that they meet with compliance, but also incredulity.
On the other hand, the scene in which Ethan explodes at his wife and actually attacks her points to the community’s deep-seated failings, especially since his wailing against Satan afterward can be interpreted either as a castigation of himself for the violence he’s perpetrated, or as an accusation against his wife as a “Jezebel.” And when Corinne is persuaded to go for counseling in an attempt to save her marriage, the session with a therapist who’s wedded to the ideas of the church has a satiric edge.
The conflation of dispassionate interest and critique is theoretically intriguing, but in the last analysis it leaves the film’s inquiry into the process of spiritual searching opaque and inconclusive. At the end the protagonist is herself confused and dissatisfied with her choices, and the picture’s noncommittal stance might well make a viewer feel the same way.
On the other hand, “Higher Ground” has been made with commitment from cast and crew. Though Michael McDonough’s cinematography could hardly be called beautiful, the images have an honest grit that suits the subject, and the physical production a simplicity that does likewise. Among the cast Farmiga anchors things with a multifaceted turn mirroring Corinne’s doubts and struggles, and while Leonard doesn’t have the same opportunity for range, he supports her well. Dominczyk has by far the most colorful role, and steals many of her scenes with ease, while John Hawkes makes the most of his few scenes as Corinne’s earthbound, cynical father. Irwin brings a sense of odd unease to his early cameo as the girl’s minister—not that the fellow’s necessarily sinister in any way, but the actor just seems to have a naturally creepy air, whether he intends it or not.
In sum, “Higher Ground” is a sincere attempt to depict the triumphs and roadblocks along the journey to spiritual fulfillment. But ultimately its achievement exceeds its ambition—not because of a lack of nerve, but because in the end its determination not to take a conclusive stand leaves it feeling muddled and unsatisfying.