In Vera Farmiga's directorial debut "Higher Ground," she plays a woman wrestling with evangelical Christianity.
In the loss-of-faith drama "Higher Ground," Vera Farmiga plays Corinne, who comes to question the safe harbor she has found in a warm and caring (though insular and sometimes intolerant) community of middle-American Jesus freaks. When her long-simmering misgivings about evangelical Christianity burst forth, she confesses to her faith community that she feels as if she is wrestling with something "void and without form." Such, unfortunately, is the film.
While it commendably treats issues of religious conviction and doubt evenhandedly and almost never caricatures believers, it fails to deliver deeply realized characters or turn screenwriter Carolyn Briggs' memoir, "This Dark World," into a compelling drama. The film is ultimately a message movie about the virtue of independent thinking, offering plenty of small insights but no revelations.
Farmiga's directorial debut follows Corinne from childhood (when she is ably played by Farmiga's sister, Taissa) through an adulthood of growing discontents. Her youth on an idyllic farm was troubled by an undercurrent of tension between her parents (John Hawkes contributes another fine portrait in miniature as her free-spirited father.)
After an ill-advised teen marriage to would-be rock musician Ethan (Joshua Leonard), the birth of their first child and a traffic accident in which they avoid tragedy seemingly with divine protection, Corinne and Ethan join a small evangelical congregation. In this group, the Bible answers all questions and salves all wounds. But Corinne doesn't feel a holy presence. She envies her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) for her ability to speak in tongues, a "prayer language" that touches Corinne with its melodious beauty. Corinne tries to capture that feeling behind her locked bathroom door, uttering random sounds in hopes of starting the flow. It doesn't come; with a half-defeated, half-determined shrug she says, "I'll try again later."
The problem may be that seeds of doubt were planted in Corinne early. Even as a child, she demonstrated a subversive love of secular literature, smuggling a copy of "Lord of the Flies" past her stern, church-lady librarian. As an adult, she secretly sniffs the aroma of library books when she thinks nobody is watching. Over time, her marriage to the good but boring Ethan settles into claustrophobic tedium and Bible-study-group carob cookies. "Do you know what carob tastes like?" she asks Annika. "Disappointment."
Corinne is increasingly drawn to a wider world of art, poetry and pleasurable sex. The film repeatedly -- and uncharitably -- makes it clear that Ethan is no King David in the lovemaking department. During one early tryst in a farm field, Corinne's gaze falls on a pig across the farm field. Years later, when the sensual Annika dares Corinne to draw her husband's penis, the sketch resembles a carrot that would not make it to market.
Corinne's commitment to her faith dwindles as disease strikes someone near her, a cosmic injustice she can't reconcile with any valuable universal plan. Eventually, she must part ways with her church and find her own answers to life's eternal questions. "Higher Ground" lacks the divine spark that would make her spiritual crisis universally meaningful. It's like a long, tedious walking pilgrimage of faith run backwards.