Actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) makes a heavenly debut as a director with Higher Ground, a compelling drama about a woman's spiritual journey.
Farmiga has done that rare thing: make a movie about religion that is neither condescending, preachy nor satirical but rather looks at an evangelical Christian community with an open and a (mostly) non-judgmental eye.
Higher Ground is based on Dark Journey: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, a 2002 autobiographical book by Carolyn S. Briggs, which chronicled her life as a born-again Christian and her eventual disillusionment and departure from a tight-knit religious community.
In Higher Ground, Farmiga tells the story of Corrine Walker, following her religious journey over decades. As a child, Corrine (played by McKenzie Turner), raises her hand in church to accept Jesus as her Savior. As a shy, bookish teenager (played by Taissa Farmiga, the director's younger sister), she begins a relationship with Ethan, a would-be rocker (The Big C's Boyd Holbrook), and soon finds herself pregnant by him and married.
When Corinne and Ethan's young daughter nearly drowns, the young couple view her survival as the hand of God at work, which spurs them to join a fundamentalist community. As the years pass, the now adult Corrine (Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) attend services and bible study, teach Sunday school and settle into a life guided and proscribed by Scripture.
Eventually, Corrine's marriage becomes passionless, and her own instincts to challenge assumptions and speak out are suppressed by the church's male hierarchy. She begins to question her faith.
What makes Higher Ground so appealing and so effective is that it takes such an even keel approach. All viewpoints are heard and respected; no one is mocked or made fun of.
Corrine's disenchantment with conservative Christianity and its restrictions grows organically out of events in her life; she believably takes baby steps rather than giant ones.
The performances are uniformly good, with Farmiga and her younger sister particularly noteworthy for their naturalness and restraint. Also registering strongly are Leonard as Corrine's frustrated husband, Dagmara Dominczyk as an ebullient best friend and Norbert Leo Butz as the amiable pastor of Corrine's church.
As a director, Farmiga displays a delicate touch, shaping characters and scenes with care and assuming enough intelligence on the part of viewers to let her story play out in a realistic fashion.
Whether a true believer or an apostate, viewers of Higher Ground will have plenty to consider and talk about afterward. And hallelujah for that.