In Home Viewings: "Higher Ground"

Corinne (Vera Farmiga) grew up quite fast. The child of a mismatched, unhappy marriage, she sought attention elsewhere and married young and had a baby. Her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), tried his hand as a musician and on a band road trip their child nearly dies in a bus crash. After this brush with death, Corinne and Ethan turn to the religion Corinne knew as a child and end up becoming part of an evangelical community. In this commune the young family finds peace and meaning and they embrace the conservative ideas of the group’s leader, Bill (Norbert Leo Butz). But as her family grows, so does Corinne’s doubt and as she wrestles with her faith, she finds that her community is unable to handle her unrest.

Higher Ground is based upon the memoir of screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs and represents Farmiga’s directorial debut. It is a bold, well-crafted film that, even in its weaker moments, gives notice of what is to come from Farmiga from behind the camera. Higher Ground displays a thoughtfulness that is uncommon in religiously-oriented tales of this sort. Rather than jumping head-first into stereotypes and harsh judgments, Farmiga shows her characters to be simply human; these are good people with good hearts even if they are misguided. The lack of condescension (for the most part) within the film was refreshing and resulted in a deeper experience than I might have expected. This isn’t a story about corporate religion so much as it is about one woman’s personal struggles with faith and that difference is what makes Higher Ground worth watching.

On screen, Farmiga is charming and charismatic as ever. For me, there are very few actresses who command attention the way Farmiga does. She’s a tremendous talent, to be sure, but there is also an inherent presence about her that makes her a wholly intriguing, captivating performer no matter what role she takes on. Her portrayal here is understated and quiet but nonetheless powerful, an excellent illustration of what a great actress can do when given room to work.

Unfortunately for Higher Ground, Farmiga’s work both behind and in front of the camera is no match for the dull nature of the film’s narrative. This is one of the more boring experiences you’ll likely have with a film this year, which is a shame because I found the lacking storyline to be an immense hindrance to becoming invested in the film. I don’t think this is a case of poor pacing or bad choices from the director. In fact, I feel that Farmiga does a good job of piecing together the story and fleshing out the parts that have the best chance of becoming connectible. I believe the problem is found within the source material which is simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. There’s very little within Higher Ground that you could describe as exciting, relevant, or even mildly intriguing. Some stories work well both as pieces of literary non-fiction and films; some do not. In this case, that lack of cinematic value results in a somewhat meaningless and decidedly uninteresting viewing that doesn’t measure up to the quality of Farmiga’s work on the project.