In the media and pop culture, the typical portrayal of Christian fundamentalists tends to err at the extremes, treating them and their beliefs with either an excess of reverence or too much mockery. Higher Ground is refreshing precisely because it finds a middle ground – in this spiritual community, there are no saints and there are no demons, no absolute wisdom and no complete idiocy. Of course, in such a vacuum, drama is harder to generate, and the film's quiet realism demands from us our own act of faith: We're asked to watch closely and to listen intently in the promise of a greater reward to come. Well, the promise is partly kept.
Essentially, it's the story of a woman whose life is changed by two embraced discoveries. First, she acquires religion and then, painfully, she gains something that speaks to her far more profoundly – doubt. The script doesn't quote Tennyson, but his famous dictum – "There lives more faith in honest doubt/ Believe me, than in half the creeds" – lies at the conflicted heart of the tale. That's the faith Corinne, an evolving skeptic among true believers, labours toward.
Vera Farmiga plays Corinne as an adult, and also makes her directorial debut – she's terrific in front of the camera and competent behind it. Early on, the childhood years are deftly sketched in: a mid-west upbringing, loving parents until time sours the marriage, a bookish kid who answers a Bible school "call to Jesus" on a whim. Fast-forward to the teenage Corinne and another succinct sketch: sex with Ethan the musician, pregnant at the altar, a near-miss in a car crash that leaves both the young husband and his bride to conclude, "God saved us."
From there, her family grows along with her commitment to a Christian sect whose members emerge as well-meaning sorts and relatively decent souls – almost hippie-like in their fondness for music, reverence for nature and their healthy libido exercised in a social context where males lead and females follow. Initially, Corinne lives comfortably with these tenets, loving Ethan because of his fatherly virtues and despite his sexual inadequacies. To indulge her playful side, she develops a fast friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), a speaking-in-tongues gal as eccentric as she is devout.
But when a brain tumour robs Annika of her personality, trapping her paralyzed limbs in a wheelchair, Corinne begins to nurture that seed of skepticism. Its flowering doubles as a source of pleasure and guilt; suddenly, she's fancying Yeats over the Bible and a local hunk over her ever-faithful hubby. This is where, in the absence of any obvious antagonists, the screenplay struggles to give dramatic expression to Corinne's inner torment, and, at times, the film seems as static as Farmiga's direction – too many basic two-shots in a generic frame.
Happily, there are other moments when our flagging interest is brightly rekindled – for instance, a birthday party scene that's beautifully nuanced, all those domestic tensions acutely present but visibly suppressed. Even better is Corinne's visit to a Christian therapist, a guy who in less sensitive hands would just be a lampooned figure of fun. Instead, here, his dead-on diagnosis simultaneously reflects the strength and the weakness of his beliefs.
He says to her: "You are worshipping at the altar of yourself." Of course she is, but that's exactly the point. Corinne has ascended to that higher ground where the bigger questions are asked. And none is bigger than this: Is religion a denial of her true self, or an antidote to the curse of narcissism? Her trial continues.
- Directed by Vera Farmiga
- Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe
- Starring Vera Farmiga and Dagmara Dominczyk
- Classification: 14A