Last August, I saw a wonderful film called Higher Ground. Despite the fact that it had gotten a rapturous review in our local news paper, I was one of the only people in the theater. Higher Ground played for a week before leaving and it’s been rather ignored during Oscar season. And that’s a shame because I think that Higher Ground is one of the best films of 2011. It’s certainly one of my personal favorites.
Taking place over the course of several decade, Higher Ground follows Corinne (Vera Farmiga) as she goes from being married and pregnant at 18 to eventually following her husband into joining a commune of self-described “Jesus Freaks.” The commune, while being undeniably well-meaning, is also male-dominated and follows an extremely fundamentalist interpretation of the bible. The previously fiercely independent Corinne quickly settles in to being a compliant housewife with her social life being pretty much limited to hanging out with the other housewives in the commune. As the years progress, Corinne struggles to balance her own independence with her own religious beliefs until finally, she starts to both question her faith and the life she’s lived for the past 20 years.
For the most part, American cinema doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to religious themes. Regardless of whether a film is pro-religion or anti-religion, the final result often times seems to be heavy-handed, simple-minded, and finally rather condescending. (I always roll my eyes whenever a white, Southern-accented preacher shows up in a movie because I know that he’s going to turn out to be a villain within the next 30 minutes). It’s very rare to find a film that treats religion and the issues of faith (and the lack of it) with anything resembling intelligence. Higher Ground is one of those rare films and, for the reason alone, it deserves to be seen. A typical and lesser film would have taken sides and would have given us a bunch of easy judgments and hissable villains. Higher Ground, however, is far too subtle and intelligent to give us any easy answers. In the end, its portrait of religion and faith is intriguingly ambiguous and one that forces the viewer to reconsider their own feelings as well.
Ultimately, Higher Ground is triumph for Vera Farmiga, who both stars and makes her directorial debut with this film. As both a director and a star, she contributes some very subtle work here and, as a result, the film almost takes you be surprise as you suddenly realize just how wrapped of you gotten in its story. Farmiga’s direction is so assured that she even gets away with a few showy fantasy sequences where Corinne reveals what’s going on behind her devout facade. It’s a triumphant directorial debut and I’m looking forward to seeing what Farmiga does in the future.