Higher Ground Review

(2.5 STARS)

2011 featured a number of stellar directorial debuts. I’ve sung the praises of Sean Durkin’s masterful Martha Marcy May Marlene for months now, but J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, and John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard were all varying degrees of intriguing and entertaining. Another of last year’s directorial debuts that I’ve been curious about for a while is Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground. Farmiga, of course, is a fine actress, and for her first behind-the-camera outing, she chose a character study about a woman grappling with issues of faith within an evangelical community. Would if I could say it was better than average, but somewhere in a sea of half-hearted statements on religion and empowerment, the story gets lost, and worse, we stop caring.

Farmiga also stars in the film. She plays our main character, Corinne, a middle-aged mother of three who has for decades wrestled internally with her thoughts on religion and God. Born into the Church, Corinne (played as a high school girl by Farmiga’s daughter, Taissa) opens up to God during her childhood, while most of her fellow classmates stay silent. But when her parents begin fighting and she starts seeing a boy, her faith is put on hold. It’s only after she gives birth to her first daughter with high school rocker boyfriend Ethan (Boyd Holbrook as a high schooler, Joshua Leonard as an adult) that they find God once again. They nearly lose their child in a bus accident, so they decide to spend the rest of their lives praising and thanking God for the miracle of life. They join a tightly knit community of fellow evangelical Christians, where women are secondary to men, and your fellow man is secondary to God. It’s there that Corinne begins to have another crisis of faith as she sees the Holy Spirit in all those around her but can’t find it within herself.

With a plot description like that, it must seem as if much of Higher Ground involves that which is internalized. It’s true, but there’s also a great deal of interpersonal conflict. Corinne finds herself an accidental lightning rod of criticism. She doesn’t wait her turn to speak like so many of the other women around her, and she’s OK not wearing a dress that buttons all the way up to her neck. This is part of the reason she struggles to fit in, and in many ways, the negative things her friends and neighbors say about her are true. She is different, she might not belong, and God might not be as present in her as He is in them (if that’s the sort of thing you believe).

Farmiga is fine in front of the camera. This is far from her best performance (The Departed and Up in the Air were much better showcases for her talents), but she’s solid. Everyone around her plays a caricature of sorts, so I can’t say I was enamored with the film’s acting. And directorially, Farmiga is generally straightforward, but she had a hard time keeping her camera still—inexplicably opting for these very slow pans across, which I didn’t think served any purpose.

I’d say the jury is still out on Farmiga as a director. She didn’t really show me much with this film, but the problems I had with it dealt more with the story itself than the way she visually expresses it. Ultimately, this is a film I just couldn’t connect with. I don’t doubt there are those who will find a great deal to admire and discuss, but I consistently felt at a distance from it, and it didn’t do enough to help me bridge that distance.

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