Woman vs. church in actress’ accomplished directing debut, ‘Higher Ground’
Was it a sign, or just random coincidence? Coming home from the film Higher Ground, actress Vera Farmiga’s impressive directing debut about a modern woman’s loss of faith, we heard the middle of The Who song, “I’m Free,” on the radio, where they sing, “…Messiahs pointed toward the door/But no one had the guts to leave the temple.” Based on the memoir, “This Dark Place,” by Carolyn S. Briggs (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Higher Ground is all about having the guts to leave the temple—in this case, a tightly knit born-again Christian community in the 1970s and ’80s—and what a wrenching decision that can be.
Director Farmiga (who also stars) does an admirable job of charting the heroine’s course from childhood uncertainty to long years “safe” in the bosom of the fundamentalist church, with all its singing, praying, and fellowship (along with the stifling regulation of women’s roles and behavior, and the discouragement of intellect). It’s easy to see how seductive the pressure to join the team might be for those who have not yet found their way in life. But a strong thread of skepticism runs through the story, from outside observers, the filmmakers, even from the protagonist herself, so we expect her break with the church to be more profound, dramatically and spiritually. Instead, her apparent decline in faith occurs with a whimper, not a bang.
After the euphoria of a lakeside baptism for Corinne Miller (Farmiga), the narrative flashes backward to tell her story. In the sequence called “Summons,” the child Corinne sheepishly raises her hand one day in Vacation Bible School when the pastor asks who has accepted the Holy Spirit. She never gives it another thought for the next few years as she grows into a bookish teen (now played by Taissa Farmiga, the director’s look-alike younger sister) with ambitions to write novels, girlfriend of a neighborhood rock guitarist, and, soon enough, pregnant new bride.
But a brush with potential tragedy convinces Corinne and her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard) that God has saved them, and they embrace the church. Giving up their dreams of careers in music and writing, they spend their days praising the Lord, studying the Bible, making new babies, and listening to sermons from Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), a bright-eyed Pentecostal warrior who calls Corinne “one fish the Lord has been trying to hook for a long time!”
The film provides an interesting glimpse into a middle-class born-again Christian community of the era. (Although it’s never explained what any of these people with their comfortable houses and late-model cars do for a living—no one is ever seen at a job—that enables them to devote 24/7 to the Lord.) The long, floral-print dresses of the women, the shaggy manes of the men, and an unexpected emphasis on teaching church members sexual techniques remind us it’s the ’70s. But if a woman stands up to speak in church, as Corinne does, she’s rebuked for trespassing on the males-only prerogative of preaching. And a marriage counselor provided by the church isn’t there to resolve domestic issues, but to “save your soul” (as he tells the wife presumed to be at fault).
The trouble is, Corinne always seems like a bit of an outsider. This may be because it’s initially Ethan’s decision to join the church, or because Farmiga plays her with too much lively intelligence to completely submerge herself within the group. The first time she sees her friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) speaking in tongues, she can’t help laughing, yet declares, “I want that!” like an eager child at someone else’s birthday party. Her private attempts to replicate the experience are extremely self-aware (“Come on, Holy Spirit!” she exhorts, half kidding), and she and the ribald Annika become a subversive Greek Chorus of two, sharing private commentary on the foibles and doctrine of their community.
Farmiga’s acting and directing choices are interesting, her storytelling fluid and compelling. But the material lets her down; Corinne’s issues seem less like a crisis of genuine faith than someone simply outgrowing a smothering group. Because she never seems completely connected to her faith, losing it doesn’t have the impact it should.
★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, and John Hawkes. Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe. From the book by Carolyn S. Briggs. Directed by Vera Farmiga. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R. 109 minutes.