Farmiga Reaches Higher Ground With Directorial Debut
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Based on Carolyn Briggs' memoir "This Dark World," actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, "Higher Ground," stakes out a fairly complicated set of conflicts for itself and, in doing so, ventures into subtly lit places that too few films about faith explore. Farmiga plays Corrine, a woman trying to make sense of her life within her family and her life within her faith. Many films show us the conflict between the spiritual and the secular; other films show us the conflict between the spiritual and the sensual. We see those conflicts here, to be sure, but what "Higher Ground" also does is show us the conflict between the spiritual and the spiritual -- the differences and disagreements, small or shattering, within Corrine's own understanding and expression of her Christian faith.
Farmiga is familiar to mainstream audiences from "The Departed" and "Up in the Air," with indie-movie patrons knowing her from "Down to the Bone" or "Running Scared." (Farmiga also has an interesting sideline as mother to evil children, as seen in both "Orphan" and "Joshua," but I digress). As a director, Farmiga is good with her actors -- as you'd hope she would be -- and excellent in her own scenes. She also pulls off the two things that, when done correctly, comprise almost 90 percent of what a director has to do for a film: hiring an excellent cast and choosing a solid cinematographer, Michael McDonough (of "Winter's Bone" and "Down to the Bone").
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The film flashes back to Corrine's youth and teen years (where she is played, superbly, by Farmiga's own younger sister Taissa), culminating in her marriage to Ethan (the excellent Joshua Leonard) and motherhood. There's no big incident that shoves Corrine into her evangelical life, although a Sunday school preacher, played with superbly muted physical showmanship by Bill Irwin, has a role.
Instead, what we see is Farmiga portraying the small accrual of choice and its absence. Corrine is constantly butting against the limits of her church, often reined in by the gentle but occasionally stern group leader Bill (an excellent Norbert Leo Butz) and prodded by the spirited-but-still-spiritual Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk).
That inner conflict and outer battle -- as Corrine longs for inclusion in a community that insists she's a second class-citizen -- is the most fascinating part of the film, and the most dramatically engaging. Corrine is told she should take care not to preach to the men of the congregation as she speaks of God, that she best not wear a dress that exposes her shoulders, that she should be cautious to not be enticed by the joy and connection Annika feels when speaking in tongues.
There are attempts to show good faith on the part of the community's men to connect their wives and daughters and sisters to the church -- Bill, in the film's '70s-ish moments, advises his male parishioners that they "have to tend to their women's needs" and offers a chance to learn from a seven-tape series called "Christ-like sex." You don't know whether to appreciate the effort suggested by the moment or bray bitter laughter.
Samuel Johnson said that "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." I'm tempted to echo that faint, damning praise for the less smooth moments in Briggs and Tim Metcalfe's adapted screenplay, when the visual metaphors get too clumsy and the subtext becomes text. Intelligent and compassionate films about faith are surprising to find done at all, so you're inclined to ignore the brief moments when they're not done well.
Then, you witness a moment like a dinner scene -- with decades-long ties of love and resentment playing out between three different kinds of broken families that enclose the eight people and three generations in the room -- and the acting from Donna Murphy and John Hawkes alone, as Corrine's mother and father, is so full of real truth and bittersweet love that it breaks the heart. Even at its most clumsy, Farmiga's directorial debut makes you look forward to her next effort from behind the camera. At its best, "Higher Ground" stands apart in a territory few films have the intelligence, courage and, yes, faith, to even try to explore.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.