Movie Review: Higher Ground

Director/actor Vera Farmiga in...

“Higher Ground” | a film review by Gary Chew

Putting it mildly, Vera Farmiga has me in a quandary. Is she better as a film director or an actor playing the lead in “Higher Ground,” which is also her first go at directing? After seeing Farmiga in “The Departed,” “Up in the Air,” “Source Code,” “Breaking and Entering,” and “Love in the Time of Money,” there’s no doubt she’s very talented in front of a Panaflex. But that may have to be amended with the arrival of this really solid 2011 Sundance movie about a contemporary, thirtysomething married woman and mother, dealing with her faith.

Most of the cast were unknown to me as I sat watching “Higher Ground,” but performances are uniformly and authentically given, especially Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s younger sister, who plays the teenaged Corinne.

Director Farmiga has gotten lots of assistance in her first time behind the camera since the script is so well-done. It was written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, originating from a memoir by Ms. Briggs called, “This Dark World.”

Joshua Leonard and Taissa Farmiga

The world of Corinne (Farmiga) is initially shown hovering nearer the dark side after she and her boy friend, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), both suffer a common teenager indignity: getting pregnant. Months after the wedding, when the offspring has grown into a toddler, the parents, in a fit of carelessness, put their child’s life in extreme jeopardy.

Corrine and Ethan have always been at the edges of religious faith. As a little girl, Corrine decided to give her life to Jesus, not knowing what that decision means. But with Corrine and Ethan’s child’s close call, an epiphanal lightning bolt strikes the parents that they interpret as God saving the baby from their irresponsibility. Repentant and filled with thanks, they begin walking a fundamentalist path of belief that’s influenced them from childhood.

With almost the poetical touch of a Terrence Malick, Vera Farmiga moves “Higher Ground” forward through sequences called, Summons, Renegade, Wilderness, Wrestling Until Dawn and The Book of Life. The segments establish and define relationships with Corinne’s mother and father, Corinne and Ethan’s children and a network of community believers they all worship with, and secularly socialize.

Refreshingly, the narrative is free of blatant signs of disrespect for the sincere believers in the script, or for real-life persons who hold similar religious beliefs. Unlike most movies, you won’t see any bad guys, or bad women for that matter, in “Higher Ground,” whether they have faith, or not. However, the religious rhetoric and vernacular, making up most of the dialogue, will likely be interpreted as the viewer’s perspective dictates—“speaking” to him or her based on personal belief, disbelief or indecision, as well as fears and values.

So, “Higher Ground” is sure to find space in newspapers other than just in the entertainment pull-out section.

As the picture has a compellingly relevant and contemporary narrative that’s well-crafted and performed, it may be a real winner for the producers and Vera Farmiga. The possibility isn’t remote that her film will stir other deeply held emotions or motivations for quite dissimilar reasons

Three scenes in “Higher Ground” should be noted. The first is a make-out moment of smooching that happens between Corinne and Ethan. It takes place during the day in an old empty swimming pool. It’s a freshly touching depiction of young love.

Scene two comes later after Corinne and Ethan have three children, but the parents are now separated. The extended family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of son Gabe. He’s just turned seven. If you don’t want your heart to melt, my advice is: don’t watch it. In my notes, I called it “Gabe-eating-the-birthday-cake” scene. The children in this film are as real as anything, especially the kid who plays Gabe.

(Maybe we should all remind ourselves, occasionally, that very young children and dogs seen in movies aren’t acting. You can see another good example of this in “Crazy Heart,” between Jeff Bridges and young Jack Nation.)

Vera Farmiga takes total control in the third and last scene. It unexpectedly turns into an impromptu sermon Corinne delivers from the front of a church sanctuary.. She’s recently begun pondering hard questions of her faith after difficulty coming to terms with her best gal pal, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), being rendered a “vegetable” during urgent brain surgery. Corinne and Annika had prayed together, before the operation, for Annika’s life and continued good health.

Dagmara Dominczyk and Vera Farmiga

With the now no longer cognizant Annika in the congregation, Corinne laments in her homily, “I need for all of THIS to be real.”

With much the same kind of courage Corinne displays in her short sermon, “Higher Ground attempts to explain fundamentalist belief to those, today, who can’t comprehend why it remains such a forceful motivation in contemporary life. The film does so commendable without attacking others who live honest, well-intended, caring lives by holding dear, something that, by definition, isn’t possible to prove.

Long may the First Amendment wave for those who believe—as well as those who don’t.

Higher Ground” official site. Opens wide September 16.

Gary Chew
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