Friday, October 7, 2011

New Release Review: Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)

Vera Farmiga’s (Up in the Air) impressive directorial debut, Higher Ground is an American drama loosely based on Carolyn Biggs’ memoir, This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost. Briggs was also involved in the screenplay, which tells the story of Corrine Walker (played at different ages by McKenzie Turner, Vera’s sister Taissa, and Vera Farmiga herself), a small-town woman who starts to question and eventually abandons the religious dogma she has embraced for the entirety of her adult life, following several crises of faith.

Corinne convinces herself at a young age, following a particularly rousing sermon by her pastor (Bill Irwin) that God has touched her heart. Pregnant and married at age 18, Corrine, her musician husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), and their infant daughter, are almost killed when their van plummets into a lake. Their faith is awakened and they turn to God. Years later, now with two children, she conforms to the local community of self-described “Jesus Freaks” and is born again.

Corinne's daily life consists of hours of Bible study, choir and alternative family practices. Though she and her husband are respected members of the congregation, Corinne always seems distant, unintentionally un-conformative to proper practices and growing continually frustrated when God’s presence isn’t made recognisable to her. The local folk are all kind-hearted, good people, whose narrow-minded view of life is often portrayed in a way that does border on satirical. Corrine's life becomes suffocating and she seeks a change of lifestyle when her closest friend becomes life-threateningly ill and her marriage begins to unravel.

Corinne’s transformation, though identifying her as hell-bound amongst the community, is sensitively handled by Farmiga, who also gives a warm, alluring performance. Simultaneously playing a woman embracing, questioning and eventually abandoning her faith, Farmiga boldly directs the touchy subject matter through some structural deficiencies (the film feels fragmented and choppy at times – capturing the memoirs) and some cheap, unnecessary attempts at humour, into a provocative drama that is ultimately powerful and heartfelt.

The highly professional photography infuses the image with a glow, which illuminates the community as though it is shrouded in a holy light. Farmiga's camera also lingers on the characters, and some sequences feature lengthy single takes. The characters are all well built and there are some fine performances, including an always-reliable John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) as Corrine's alcoholic father, Nina Arianda as Corrine's sister Wendy and Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika, Corrine's best friend. But it's the lovely Vera Farmiga, who has the ability to make any film compelling, who shines brightest. Never once do we not consider her to be completely decent person; even though her husband and friends consider her a fraud and an outcast. That warming smile and her beautiful blue eyes aid her natural ability as an actress, and her selfless direction brings out the best from her co-stars.

While there are some throwaway scenes, and the film sometimes slips into preach mode (but never to the extent of stereotyping the pastors), there are enough poignant moments; one altercation near the end between Corrine and her husband was very intense, and an excellent finale, to lift this well above-average. I think Higher Ground is also quite accessible, considering it's stance is right in the middle of Christians and Agnostics, who often enough view one another with prejudice and unease. The extended sequences of the characters in prayer will be difficult for some to relate to, but it is never abhorrently offensive in its depiction of their bible-quoting and likely conceived ‘simple-mindedness’. This is a compelling and uplifting spiritual journey, and a fine debut feature from a very talented woman. I look forward to her next effort behind the camera. 

My Rating: ★★★1/2 (B-)


  1. I remember Ebert giving the film a positive review and Farminga is always great.... however, it's just not opening very well over here.

  2. When I heard that Vera was directing a movie, I knew that I automatically had to see it. I have no idea of when it will come out here, or whether it will come out, but I will definitely be running to see it. I simply love Vera, and I've heard some good things about it. Glad you liked it!

  3. @ Sam - It hasn't opened well over here either. I saw the third session of it's release, and it was me and three other people. Sad, because it is a good film. Yes, Farmiga is always great!

    @ Stevee - It's worth a look if you get the chance. Vera has the ability to make any film watchable and she is usually involved in great films (well, The Departed and Up in the Air are two examples) and her direction is impressive!