It's not uncommon for actors-turned-filmmakers to show up at Sundance with their directorial debuts, and Higher Ground
is something special as actress Vera Farmiga, who first made waves at the festival in Debra Granik's Down to the Bone
, takes over duties behind the camera and impresses us with a showcase of her abundant talents.
Directed by Vera Farmiga; Written by Carlyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Bill Irwin, Donna Murphy, Norbert Leo Butz, John Hawkes, Dagamara Dominczyk, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Based on the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay, "Higher Ground" tells the story of Corinne Walker, an imaginative girl from a broken family who tries to figure out her direction in life and how faith and religion plays a part in that. As a girl growing up, she's a voracious reader and writer, but when she's asked to write lyrics for a charming rocker named Ethan, she falls in love and after getting married, the two of them join an evangelical commune-like church that becomes a large and important part in their life. The film follows Corinne through her interactions with God, a lot of time passing between each scene; we see her losing her virginity to Ethan, getting married, them having a baby and going on the road until something happens that brings them together with the church. Corinne is perfectly happy raising a family in that environment, though she's often left feeling unfulfilled by her inability to feel God's presence in her life.
Every once in a while, material comes along that's perfectly matched to a filmmaker or an actor and in this case, they're one and the same. Most moviegoers will already be well aware what a supremely talented actress Vera Farmiga is and what she's capable of even in her weaker films. With "Higher Ground," she delivers on two levels, not only in her own portrayal of the character but also how she constructs Corrine's world and fills it with believable characters.
The latter involves assembling a solid cast of actors, many playing against what we normally see them do, and Farmiga pulling great performances out of all of them. The most impressive performance comes from Joshua Leonard, who plays Corinne's husband Ethan for the majority of the film. Leonard has turned into a terrific actor, but Farmiga has cast him in a role that allows him to branch out from playing semi-comic characters, and their pairing works surprisingly well.
Even so, the film's true breakout stars is Famiga's own sister Taissa Farmiga, who plays the younger Corinne so beautifully that the film never suffers during the substantial amount of time before the main star shows up. Then there's Dagamara Dominczyk as Corinne's best friend Annika, who helps her get through the difficulties of the religious environment and allows her to have fun until something happens to her, too. The main cast is rounded out by Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corrine's mother and father who mostly appear at the beginning of the film, then disappear for a good 90 minutes only to return for a nice family reunion in the last act.
While "Higher Ground" might not seem like a particularly difficult film to direct with a relatively small but solid cast and nothing very flashy, once you realize what's involved with realistically creating someone's entire life and all its many facets, it's quite impressive. Because so much time passes in the film and between each scene, every character including Farmiga herself has an entirely different look from one scene to the next—the hair, make-up and costume departments really are put through their paces—plus she had to have many young actors appearing for just one scene each as Corrine's kids at different ages in her life.
Normally, one would expect material like this to be done entirely in a dramatic manner and be a lot more serious and darker than it actually is. Throughout Corinne's story, Farmiga finds ways of keeping it light and entertaining--Dominczyk helps a lot in this respect--without ever making it feel like she's poking fun or criticizing faith or religion, being quite respectful to anyone in the audience who may follow God themselves. The evangelical group at the center of the story are never portrayed as "evil Christians," something that's become far too common in movies these days, most recently in Kevin Smith's "Red State." Instead, the people around Corrine are generally good, kind and caring people who have chosen to conduct their lives through the words of the Bible, and it constantly feels like the film's treading on territory we haven't seen in many films not made specifically for Christian audiences. The material just feels fresh and original rather than pandering or preachy.
Even so, the church's edict that women should be seen and not heard is what begins to conflict with Corinne's once independent spirit and ultimately, it's what starts her thinking maybe the church isn't for her. By the third act, her and Ethan have drifted apart and she's living on her own while relishing her flirtations with a handsome Irish postman. This is where the film starts to drift a little, but Corinne does get closure with the church as she gives an impassioned speech before moving on with her life.
Granted, this sort of material might not be for everyone--some of it feels more geared towards the women who might be prone to reading a memoir telling a woman's life story--but "Higher Ground" succeeds in its attempt at following the life of a woman trying to find God without losing herself, and that overwhelming success entirely relies on the talents of Farmiga, both as actress and as director.