Hail Vera!

Higher Ground ★★★★
(USA, 109 min.)
Dir. Vera Farmiga, Writ: Carolyn S. Briggs & Tim Metcalfe, story by Carolyn S. Briggs.
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Taissa Farmiga.
Hail Vera, full of grace, d’recting is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst actresses,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Higher Ground.
Holy Vera, Mother of Film,
pray for Madonna,
now and at the hour of W.E.

Higher Ground is a beautiful directorial debut for Vera Farmiga. In the past decade, Farmiga has steadily established herself as one of the silver screen’s best performers by offering consistently strong work in films like Down to the Bone, Nothing but the Truth, and Up in the Air. That Farmiga excels behind the camera as well should come as no surprise, since she has collaborated with some masters of the cinema, like Martin Scorsese (The Departed) and Jonathan Demme (The Manchurian Candidate). Farmiga’s film is a small-scale miracle of a movie. Adapting This Dark World, the memoir Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe), Farmiga dives into America’s Bible belt and transports viewers through a fair and thoughtful story of salvation found and lost.

Higher Ground is a strong, well-handled adaptation of Briggs’ provocative memoir. The film opens with Corinne (Vera Farmiga) as she undergoes a rebirth in a riverside baptism. Higher Ground then flashes back to the days of Corinne’s misspent youth, which mostly consisted of enduring the endless squabbling of her parents, played by the fabulously cast Donna Murphy and John Hawkes.

Then, one fine Sunday morning, Corinne seeks acceptance. As her local pastor (Rachel Getting Married’s Bill Irwin) asks which of the children wish to let Jesus into their hearts, Corinne sneaks a careful glance around the room and sees that only two of her peers have joined the faithful. In search of the love she lacks at home, Corinne raises her hand – three’s a charm. 

Although Corinne joins her friends in an intimate pow-wow with the preacher to celebrate the fact that they are down with G-O-D, she has doubts. Corinne judges her mother for dressing provocatively and suspects her of seduction. She takes an interest in boys. She finds herself pregnant and then married at seventeen… not exactly the actions of a woman who has delivered herself unto the Lord.
After a second life-defining moment, though, Corinne once again finds faith in God. As Corinne grows into motherhood, she and her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), follow a strict life of devotion, raising their children among fellow believers. The parish to which Corrine and Ethan belong is admittedly an odd one. The members of the congregation place unwavering commitment to the lessons of their preacher, Pastor Bud (Norbert Leo Butz). Bud, however, encourages an odd dogma that relegates to women of the parish to silly subservient roles, which frustrates Corinne, as she desires to express her faith more outwardly, but she can’t find the proper outlet no matter how hard she tries.

Corinne finds some solace in a fellow kindred spirit at her parish. Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) is an earthly and unrepentantly free believer, and through her, Corinne finds peace and satisfaction in her relationships with her peers and with God; however, Corinne’s inner harmony isn’t long-lived for this dark world, as a series of surprising, seemingly cruel twists of fate lead her to believe that no loving God would return her love for Him in such a cold manner.

Farmiga deftly brings the film to a crossroads, leading Corinne to decide whether she should follow God in spite of her doubts or risk being cast aside with the dogs into damnation. It soon becomes startling clear that what is missing in Higher Ground is the love or jubilation one expects to find through such a journey. When Corinne finally follows her heart, the film bursts open with a surprising sense of serenity and catharsis.

By skilfully examining the co-dependency of faith and doubt, Farmiga’s film offers a morale as sound and non-judgemental as that of Briggs’ book. Higher Ground ultimately preaches neither for nor against organized religion, but it rather encourages one simply to find a channel to bring love into one’s life. Whether to love for faith or for family does not matter, so long as the path one follows is open for questioning and contemplation.
The well-wrought tone of Higher Ground is merely one of Farmiga’s many strengths as a director. She subtly allows the fine script by Briggs and Metcalfe to do much of the talking. The screenwriters deserve credit for eschewing voice-over, as retrospective analysis from Corinne would likely have sounded too preachy (though it reads great in Briggs’ memoir). Farmiga, furthermore, lends the film a soft ethereal glow through the lensing of DP Martin McDonough (Winter’s Bone, Albert Nobbs), and the two don’t stray into the temptation of over-doing the camerawork, but rather keep the film grounded with careful point-of-view shots and eye-line matches to convey Corinne’s wandering doubt.

One should also add that Farmiga gives one of her strongest performances in front of the camera in Higher Ground. The actress never lets her direction get the better of her (unlike a few other actor/directors who seem unrestrained) and she gives a joyful yet delicately measured rendering as Corinne struggles between light and darkness. Farmiga’s talent as an actor enables her to draw good work from her ensemble cast as well, with Murphy, Hawkes, and Dominczyk delivering particularly worthy performances. Also notable is Farmiga’s real-life little sister Taissa as Corinne’s younger self – Farmiga’s fine act of nepotism goes not in vain. Vera Farmiga excels as both actor and director in Higher Ground, offering one of the richest, most rewarding films of the year. Can I get an Amen!?

 Higher Ground is currently playing at The Mayfair in Ottawa.

*Photos by Molly Hawkey, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics