Movie Review: “Higher Ground”

Written by Brent Holmes November 08, 2011

Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut takes the high road.

Higher Ground is Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut and an incredibly mature film. Following Corrine (played by Taissa Farmiga as a youth and Vera Farmiga as an adult) as she goes through a crisis of faith in a religious southern United States community, the film takes the high road in dealing with religious characters. There are no blatant stereotypes; only characters who are trying to find answers where at times there doesn’t seem to be one.

The film shows Corrine grow from a renegade youth, sneaking out copies of “The Lord of the Flies” from the public library, to a teenage mother shocked into faith after a car crash with her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), to middle-aged mother struggling to balance public tragedies, raise kids, and crumbling marriage. Farmiga wisely cuts between these stages of Corrine’s life so that each motion is like a painting portraying a fragile stage of Corrine’s wrestle with faith.

Corrine’s character is one that is immediately recognizable she is a woman of intelligence and wisdom. She reads literature and poetry, and has an analytical and passionate mindset, like a modern day Jane Eyre who had never met her Rochester. These qualities give her deep insights into faith, bogged down by the patriarchy of people who take 1 Timothy 2 far too seriously.

Unfortunately, the film refrains from providing any hard criticism of the Church of the United States. For all the Jesus thumping of Corrine’s Conservative Church, the ‘religious nuts’ only use Old Testament and non-Gospel New Testament references. By avoiding heavily using anything Jesus actually says, the film sets a tone that is not as critical. (Not that anyone who is particularly close minded on the subject will notice or care about this distinction.)

However, what the film loses in criticism, it makes up for in realism. Corrine’s relationship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) is one that shows a kind of fellowship that has a good depth to it. The collapse of Corrine’s marriage is presented, not as a positive or negative decision, but one complete with consequences, awkward situations, and tragedies.

The biggest problem with Higher Ground is that it is a film that is only really accessible to certain individuals. Fundamentalist and atheist can crucify this film in unison for being either too critical or not critical enough of the Church. More open minded individuals will probably appreciate the film’s realistic presentation of faith and anyone apathetic to the whole idea won’t really care.

While from a realistic standpoint, this tone gives the film a spirit that reflects where many people may find themselves today. Artistically, this tone severely weakens the opinions presented on the Church. There is a really beautiful binary set up between being in the loop versus ‘out with the dogs’ that is well illustrated in the film and suggests that the latter option is where the Church belongs. Many of the film’s final scenes including Corrine’s final sermon at the end of the film feels too much nostalgia; too much looking back as if to suggest some desire to go back to her old life.

Another significant, although forgivable frustration comes in the form of Corrine’s Irish friend who shares her love of poetry. The film builds up some kind of infatuation, and rightly finds a way out of trying to take the plot in that direction away from it, but does it rather clumsily. (SPOILER ALERT) Corrine learns the Irish hottie is married when she sees a ring on his finger, no dialogue is spoken in the scene and that scene is not referred to later in the film. The problem is that since their relationship takes place over many years and the characters seem to know each other quite well so it is incredibly unlikely that she wouldn’t have realized he was married before. (END SPOILER ALERT) Again, its a forgivable complaint, primarily because the man in question sports a beautiful Irish accent.

Ultimately, whether or not this film belongs in the book of great films about life or condemned to the discount DVD pile at a convenience store remains a really hard question to answer. The realism is a better approach to tackling this subject matter, but the artistry is weakened because of it. Perhaps the real complaint is simply that the film does not affirm what any real Christian should know: that the capitalistic American approach to faith is untenable, in which case, there is nothing wrong with the film and your humble Christian reviewer is to blame.

My Rating: 7.5/10


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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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