Faith is an incredibly personal thing, and is often difficult to reconcile with one’s own rational mind. Based on the memoir This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost by Carolyn Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground joins a run of films this year that have mused on faith and its extremes. From the cultish leanings of Martha Marcy May Marlene through to Kevin Smith’s Red State, and to a lesser extent the retro-inspired Footloose, the religious constructs that give people’s lives meaning can lead to monumental change or simply personal enlightenment. Either way, faith and its absence are central to the existential questions humans have been asking since they developed the capacity for higher thought.
As a young girl, Corinne raises her hand in Sunday school to accept Jesus into her heart. Higher Ground traces her spiritual journey in finding a place for him there. Pregnant and married as a teen (newcomer Taissa Farmiga), Corinne and her husband Ethan (Boyd Holbrook/Joshua Leonard) survive a car crash and ultimately turn to a New Testament church. As an adult, Corinne (Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air) and her family have become intrinsically involved with the church, despite its policy on keeping women subservient, but her faith is no longer able to sustain her. As a series of trials present themselves to test her faith, Corinne begins to wonder whether she really had any to begin with.
Higher Ground is not simply an impressive debut from Farmiga, but an incredibly well-crafted film in its own right. Neither judging nor commenting on the beliefs of the people in this community, the film chooses to take the higher ground of its title and simply present each side of the coin as a valid way of living. Farmiga’s is an incredibly restrained hand, never crossing the line into preaching or condemning those who do spout the good word. There are certainly darker sides of faith-based communities on display here, from the treatment of women to the shunning of Corinne’s thirst for knowledge, and the ultimate test of her faith when her outrageous best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) is left a shell of her former self. Yet these are just facts laid bare for someone else to judge. As Corinne states simply to the padre of the community as the film draws to a close, “I wish I had your faith”.
Farmiga has gathered an impressive ensemble, entrusting herself with the difficult central role of Corinne. Appropriately enough, Farmiga’s own journey is to put her faith in her actors, who mirror her award-worthy performance in every way. Casting her sister Taissa as her younger self may seem nepotistic, yet the debut actress has had a lifetime to capture the subtle mannerisms of her older sister and somehow imprints her own idiosyncrasies on the elder Farmiga. The outspoken character of Dominczyk steals just about every scene she is in, while Josh Leonard demonstrates how far he has come since The Blair Witch Project in a multilayered role pivotal to Corinne’s spiritual development, or lack thereof. Familiar face John Hawkes underplays his role for an incredible emotional impact, rounding out a cast that each deserves accolades in turn.
Setting the film in the 1970s and 1980s gives an appropriate air of distance to the narrative, but also embues the whole tale with a dreamlike quality. So too does Michael McDonough’s (Winter’s Bone) cinematography, keeping its subjects at arm’s length, only to stun you with his intimacy when required. Higher Ground does not aim to provide all of the answers, but merely a canvas upon which to explore them. The final step, in which further action is required from the audience, will still require a leap of faith.
Higher Ground is released in Australia on 6 October 2011 from Sony.