In the early 1970s, a young American woman, Corinne falls in love with Ethan, a musician, they marry and raise a family. Her own parents are many years divorced, but Corinne and Ethan find strength in their faith. They live in a tightly knit spiritual community that apparently gives Corinne everything she needs until her marriage begins to break down.
A movie about faith, spirituality and religion doesn’t exactly spell box office gold in our wicked, pluralistic Western world, which is one reason HIGHER GROUND is worthy of our attention. It attempts to dramatise some difficult concepts in a truthful way. For the record, this writer is still a lefty, atheist ratbag. I haven’t got religion, but this movie held my full attention.
HIGHER GROUND is an absolute rarity, a film that attempts to get inside Charismatic Christianity whilst neither playing it for laughs nor cheerleading this particular world-view.
The movie follows the life of Corinne. She has early brushes with standard-issue Christianity but her family isn’t particularly devout. Slowly, she and her then boyfriend Ethan, are drawn into living a life of deep, daily faith and observance. To say they are born-again or saved, probably gives the wrong impression to those of us who know little about the Charismatic tradition. In fact, for non-Americans part of the fascination the film offers is viewing a world that one has previously only glimpsed.
HIGHER GROUND is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir THIS DARK WORLD. She was one of the co-writers of the screenplay and so the minutely observed details of the film have an insider’s truth about them. Very few life and death events confront Corrine. Her struggles to raise her family seem familiar from one angle, but utterly unfamiliar when seen through the prism of her faith. God is always with her. He is in every almost conversation and in almost every thought. Satan is a being or entity to be fought. God and the Devil are not abstract ideas for Corinne’s family and community, they are everyday realities.
Living in a community where you agree to allow others to have influence over your behaviour and opinions is something that many would find restrictive. It’s only touched upon lightly, but there is a definite hierarchy and patriarchy in Corinne’s community. At one point, a woman who has greater status because she is the wife of a preacher, warns Corinne that she has come dangerously close to preaching to others that day. In seems only some may teach The Word.
What is also enlightening about the film is that it has a terrific sense of humour. Corinne and her best friend Annika (Dominczyk) have some very funny moments together and the warmth of their friendship is one of the ways we see the positive side of life in the community.
When eventually Corinne’s relationship and faith are tested, her entire world is rocked. It’s a tribute to the success of HIGHER GROUND that we understand how powerfully transforming any such philosophical and spiritual shift could be for her.
It is not uncommon for well-known actors to green-light their directorial debut by taking a role in a personal film they have put their heart and soul into–Tim Robbins, Jodie Foster and George Clooney are but three examples. Being star and director can be a gamble that ends up compromising one or both positions. Vera Farmiga has passed the test with flying colours
The performances are all first rate. The younger Corinne is excellently played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s twenty-years younger sister. Joshua Leonard portrays the older Ethan with great skill. He is not the ‘bad guy’ because for the most part, this movie doesn’t point the finger. The supporting roles are also well cast; both notable are Tony winner Donna Murphy as Corinne’s flighty mother and DEADWOOD’s John Hawkes as her alcoholic father.
Farmiga’s own performance is subtle and affecting, but her direction of this small and unexpected gem of a movie feels like the greater achievement.
HIGHER GROUND is screening now in Australia. It runs for 111 minutes. My rating: 4/5.