Vera Farmiga has proven herself to be one of the most gifted and proficient actresses in Hollywood. In “Higher Ground” she once again shows off her acting chops but it also marks her directorial debut. It’s a thoughtful and sometimes challenging film that takes a more candid look at spirituality and how life’s difficulties make true faith seem out of reach. It’s also a story of decisions and the consequences that follow. It tackles some weighty religious issues but also looks at social troubles such as drug use, infidelity, and divorce. But at it’s heart, “Higher Ground” is the story of one woman’s conflict between the faith she envies and the lack of faith she feels.
Farmiga plays Corinne, a married mother of two who has watched her life take several drastic changes in direction. She was raised in church but was led away by her rebellion. After some poor choices lead to a premature pregnancy and marriage, she’s brought back to God by a near tragic accident. The family dedicates themselves to a small local church and we watch as Corinne grows in her personal relationship with God. But an inner conflict grows within as she struggles to see God’s hand in some truly difficult circumstances. She asks tough questions with genuine motivations and most of the picture focuses on her search for clarity. Corinne is a very earnest woman and Farmiga makes her believable and relatable regardless of your religious convictions. It’s a beautiful performance that drives the entire film and never shortchanges the character.
When it comes down to it, “Higher Ground” plays it pretty safe. It’s constructed in a way that different people can take away different conclusions largely based on their personal beliefs on Christianity and faith. The story certainly doesn’t target Christianity but neither does it shy away from asking some fairly provocative questions. While at times it tries to paint faith into a corner and make Christians seem naive and disconnected, it also shows the deception and disloyalty of the faithless world. It may dabble in the occasional stereotype, but overall it stays on an even course which should allow it to speak to different people.
Farmiga’s direction is subtle and steady. She lets the story unfold without any overwrought theatrics or emotional gimmickry. The film looks and feels grounded in reality and Farmiga maintains a steady, natural tone. There are a couple of instances where it abruptly shifts to a new scene, but otherwise it moves at a smooth pace. The Christians are often times depicted well but at other times I couldn’t help notice how much they resembled a group of hippies from Woodstock. There are also several attempts at humor that are actually quite funny, but there are others that feel terribly out-of-place in the picture. One example is Corinne’s close friend explaining her method of keeping her marriage fresh. It’s not particularly funny and I found it pulled me out of the film.
There’s a lot to like about “Higher Ground”. Farmiga shows that she is certainly capable behind the camera even though the movie has it’s shortcomings. It’s a little clunky in some areas and it’s characterizations aren’t always consistent. But it is a careful and sincere picture that I bought into from the start. It clearly wants to speak to both sides of the faith issue but it does so without delegitimizing either position. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking picture that may not be the best film of the year, but it certainly works on many levels.