Movie Review: “Higher Ground”

Since childhood, Corinne has been searching for something. She might have found it in a book, if the local librarian hadn’t yanked “Lord of the Flies” out of her hands. She might have found it in music, if mom (Broadway great Donna Murphy) hadn’t dismissed her interest in learning it.

And she might have found answers in vacation Bible school.

“She got saved today,” pushy Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin) tells mom.

“Saved from what?”

Religion eventually becomes Corinne’s permanent quest in “Higher Ground,” Vera Farmiga’s challenging film based on Carolyn Briggs memoir.

It’s a film that takes us from a child’s sense of wonder to the life mistakes that cause a teen (Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sister) to seek refuge in religion, on through an adulthood in which Corinne falls in with the 1960s and 70s hippie strain of fundamentalism.

And it is as an adult that Corinne, played with curiosity, confusion and compassion by director-star Vera Farmiga, remembers her curiosity and her original quest, something that won’t sit well with the congregation she has been an integral part of for years.

“Higher Ground” is a period piece, about a time when young spiritual seekers took up the Bible and went out of doors to preach, in “God’s cathedral, in the splendor of his creation.” Lives were simplified, rural by intention, not default. Religion was a part of that.

Corinne has confrontations with her vulgar, non-Christian sister (Nina Arianda) and her “submit to me” dullard of a husband (Joshua Leonard). She questions her preacher and she bonds with fellow believer, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), a woman whose intelligence and spirit inspire Corinne, and who teaches her to speak in tongues. They bridle at the patriarchy they’ve bought into and find themselves chastised by their fellow congregants who often wear the beatific but empty smile of the true believer.

“The Deceiver comes disguised as a bringer of light!”

Farmiga directs and plays this as a woman with questions. Thus, the tone is a bit all over the place — frank discussion and depictions of sex, but with an equally frank embrace of Christianity, talking the talk and walking the walk. A few characters come off as narrow-minded, but they are both believers and non-believers. Corinne prays, wonders why bad things happen to good people and quietly fumes at those who would sit in judgment of her and her questions.

The film never mocks, even in those moments when it is plain that it’s point of view doesn’t make it a straight “faith based film.”

The movie “Higher Ground” best compares to is Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” another film about fervent faith and questioning that faith. Farmiga challenges herself and the viewer. Some may shrink from that challenge, but thankfully, our gutsy director and star never does.

MPAA Rating: R, for some language and sexual content.

Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Donna Murphy, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Irwin.

Credits: Directed by Vera Farmiga, written by Carolyn Briggs and Tim Metcalfe. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 1:49

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