Directed by and starring actress Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up in the Air), Higher Ground is a decades-spanning story of one woman's journey into and out of evangelical faith, starting when she is a young girl and ending when she is a mother of three, her youngest roughly the same age as she is when the film starts.
As a child, Corinne (McKenzie Turner) submits to being "saved" during Bible school, perhaps as much out of boredom as anything. By the time she's a teenager (played by the director's much younger, dead-ringer sister Taissa Farmiga), Corinne has forgotten all that, having moved on to books (The Lord of the Flies) and boys, particularly classmate Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), who fronts the rock band the Renegades. Corinne isn't just a front-row fan at Renegades gigs, she helps write lyrics, and soon she's a knocked-up teen bride.
It's after the young couple's daughter survives a tour-bus crash en route to a Renegades gig that Corinne and Ethan find God (again) and, flashing forward, we see them (now played by the director and Humpday's Joshua Leonard) as members of an evangelical congregation, Ethan having abandoned his bid for rock stardom and channeled his music into performing hymns at a local nursing home.
This evangelical community isn't like the ones we're used to seeing in the movies. "God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but also in the trees and flowers and clouds," the church leader tells his congregation early on, after Corinne's born-again baptism.
Set in the post-hippie '70s and '80s, these are furry, friendly people prone to acoustic church hootenannies, vegetarian diets, and men's-group instruction in "Christ-like sex" that endorses clitoral stimulation as a key to "attending your wive's needs." And despite coinciding with the rise of the Moral Majority, this particular evangelical sect seems uninterested in electoral or conservative politics.
But Corinne finds there's a limit to how much these men care about a woman's needs. The patriarchal impulse of this ostensibly progressive religious community proves to be immutable. When Corinne tries to voice her faith in church, she's reprimanded by the minister's wife for daring to preach to men and is later scolded for tempting men in the congregation by wearing an off-the-shoulder dress. And Corinne finds herself recoiling from church platitudes when her best friend, lusty earth-mother type Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), suffers a debilitating brain tumor.
Corinne's disenchantment with the church grows alongside her disenchantment with an emotionally, intellectually, and sexually unfulfilling marriage, these two tracks leading her toward doubt and a hard reach for spiritual and personal independence.
Higher Ground might be the best film with an evangelical setting since Robert Duvall's great 1997 film The Apostle. It's a similarly realistic, non-judgmental depiction — neither endorsement nor condemnation. But, for better or worse, Higher Ground lacks the dramatic fireworks of The Apostle. Despite providing herself with a rare good leading role, Farmiga is careful — maybe too careful — to avoid turning Higher Ground into a vanity project and tends toward the subtle and gradual in Corinne's personal evolution. (She's also generous with other actors, getting good work, in particular, from Leonard, her younger sister, and John Hawkes as Corinne's genial but alcoholic father).
Religion is somewhat less the centerpiece here. At its core, Higher Ground is as much a story of a woman who married and had kids too young, before she was fully formed herself, and then found herself growing apart from a partner and makes the difficult steps to change her life. The religious journey only adds depth. This might be a familiar story, but it's told well and from a woman's perspective — not only star/director Farmiga, but co-screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs, adapting her own memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost — it's a welcome one.
Opening Friday, October 21st