Higher Ground (2011)
September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Matcalfe, based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs
Directed by Vera Farmiga
Starring Vera Farmiga, Dagmara Domicczyk, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Taissa Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin, Norbert Leo Butz, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sean Mahon, Michael Chernus
Higher Ground is a deeply personal, unbiased and non-judgmental look inside the personal spiritual journey of one Born Again Christian whose had faith all her life, but who struggles with the stringent lifestyles of her peers in contrast to her natural personality and sense of wonder for the world around her. Her logical and intellectual side, which encourages her individualism and self-exploration wrestles with the paternal and dogmatic society (read: pseudo cult) that she’s enmeshed herself in.
Vera Farmiga is nothing short of spellbinding as star and director of ‘Higher Ground’, based on the memoirs of a real life former Born Again Christian named Carolyn S. Briggs, who left Christianity and converted to Judaism in her 30’s, also getting an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas.
Higher Ground breathes new, unbiased life into religious drama; These aren’t zombies of God, they’re products of their environment and people who have chosen this life through careful consideration and personal experience. The film is smart enough to acknowledge their humanity, particularly with fantasy sequences for Farmiga’s character Corinne, visualizing her inner thoughts of sexuality, humor and grace.
Farmiga never lets us get comfortable amongst the small congregation she depicts, nor does she portray them as ignorant or anything to laugh at. There are sequences of genuine humor which come out of the limits their faith places on these all too human individuals, sequences of such ridiculousness that they can’t help but laugh at themselves, though their faith is no less genuine and their lives no less devoted to their faith.
As Corinne, Farmiga presents us with someone who is neither sheep nor heretic. She shows us the life of someone born into the Christian faith who organically grows away from it through her own intellectual awakenings as she begins to question the logic of her fellow parishioners in the wake of illogical choices they make in straightforward situations.
Farmiga’s character is as in love with Christianity as they are, but she responds to it differently. She was born into a Christian but mostly secular household (John Hawkes shows up as her normal blue collar father) and finds religion later in life through sheer happenstance of a reaction to personal strife. She has sermons that boil up from deep within her heart and when she’s asked to speak to her fellow congregants she can’t help but preach. She’s reminded that it is not the place of the women to preach. The women in their modest flower pattern dresses, ceding power and intellectual propriety to the men of the congregation, all nice men to be certain, but the sexism is palpable and most participants are willing, though Corinne can’t help but be herself, a woman who read historically significant, intellectual challenging and very secular literature, who finds friendship in people outside the church, who questions the path she is on, a question that will be her religious downfall and personal triumph.
An example of this is her friend Annika (Dagmara Domicczyk), a fellow congregant who speaks in tongues when praying and claims to have an intense connection to God, but who also expresses her humanity through healthy activities like an obsession with the dimensions of her husband’s penis and a clever trick to get out of traffic tickets. She makes Corinne feel like a normal woman with a normal friendship, giving them breathing room to be their natural selves, independent of their faith. When a tragedy rips Annika’s friendship from Corinne and Corinne must watch in horror as the congregation chalks bad fortune up to God’s will, it pushes her over the edge of merely questioning her faith, straight into a desire to change her life.
Farmiga’s casting is exceptional, using her younger sister as the teenage version of her character and filling the cast with non-traditional personality types, none of whom would immediately strike you as being particularly religious. They’re all quite young, for the most part, and very congenial without seeming preachy. Their lives revolve around their love of God, but it comes out mostly in the privacy of their own home or in the comfort of their church. There isn’t a character singled out to function as a villain or a true adversary, there are no big showdowns and the film isn’t tantamount to heresy. It’s merely one person’s journey through the trials and tribulations of faith. Her husband, played by Joshua Leonard, is phenomenally relatable as a man who finds comfort in Christianity, but is not ruled by it. It’s his blanket of safety in the face of all of life’s problems and disappointments and her congregation is full of very normal people who have simply found their safety net in faith. Many of the other characters share his traits of self-doubt and comfort in Christ.
The point of Higher Ground is that Corinne fell through that safety net and had to find another path for herself, which is as legitimate as life choice as anyone who would choose faith.
The film’s brilliance is in the subtlety of its story structure. When the film starts it isn’t clear where it’s heading or how it will get there, we never see any significant dramatic signposts; this is a gradual and subtle journey of self-discovery of one woman.
Farmiga has established herself with Higher Ground as a directorial force to be reckoned with, showing restraint in keeping her characters and scenes grounded, while showing equal control and willingness speak some fearless and soul baring dialogue, showing the discrepancy between striving for perfection in belief and the realities of being humanly imperfect.
She has crafted the most personal, fully realized and well rounded drama of 2011 thus far and my choice for this year’s best picture so far.