Quietly engrossing and deftly delivered, Higher Ground is a film that walks an intriguing path. It's the directorial debut of actor Vera Farmiga’s (Source Code) and is a respectful, honest, and at times almost ethnographical window into an evangelical Christian community.
Adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, Higher Ground traces the life of Corinne Walker (played by Farmiga herself), a bookish girl turned born-again Christian whose relationship with God waxes and wanes.
As a child (beautifully portrayed by both Mackenzie Turner and later, Farmiga’s own sister Taissa), Corinne witnesses her parents’ (John Hawkes and Donna Murphy) loving marriage torn asunder by tragedy. And although she heeds the words of her kindly Pastor (Bill Irwin) to accept Jesus into her life, it isn’t until Corinne’s own child is threatened that she and her musician husband Ethan (Boyd Holbrook, later Joshua Leonard) give their lives entirely over to God.
Living amongst the people they'd once dismissed as ‘Jesus Freaks’, Ethan is transformed. But for Corinne the Lord becomes increasingly elusive. Initially this manifests as playful envy of the effortless spirituality of her vivacious friend Annika (a sexy and scene stealing Dagmara Dominczyk), but eventually Corinne finds herself straying more and more to the secular solace of her library, and, on occasion, into flights of bizarre fantasy.
Playing out over 112 minutes, Farmiga warmly recreates Corinne’s 1960s childhood through the 1980s and beyond in what is a graceful and astoundingly nuanced portrait of a crisis of faith. Both behind and in front of the camera, Farmiga displays masterful restraint (this is a story that could easily have been laden with voiceover) allowing Michael McDonough’s unobtrusive but intimate cinematography to make the most of her beautifully expressive face. Anyone familiar with Farmiga’s performance in Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone or her Oscar nominated turn in Up in the Air will be similarly impressed with the depth and naturalism of her performance.
Spending almost two hours in the company of evangelical Christians will doubtless prove too much for some, but, given a chance, Higher Ground is nothing short of sublime. Farmiga and her marvellous ensemble cast miraculously manage to balance subtle satire alongside their earnest performances. It's a compelling portrait of an embracing yet conflicted society.
4 ½ Stars
Australian release date: 6 October 2011
Published in The Big Issue #391
Watch more about Higher Ground over on The Movie Club