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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Aug. 26, 2011 | 11:17 AM

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Generally speaking, films about religion are anathema in Hollywood.  In recent years, films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ and the Left Behind series have revealed that the Christian market is a potentially lucrative one.  These films were able to make money because they were marketed to a very specific audience who shared their world view going in.  To put it bluntly, these movies preach to the choir.  Films that offer a nuanced portrait of religious faith, that thoughtfully explore their subject without derision or judgment, and that allow for some measure of ambiguity, are a very rare bird indeed. Academy Award nominated actress Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Up In The Air) has given us such a film with her directing debut Higher Ground, and the film’s portrait of a young woman struggling to maintain her youthful evangelical convictions feels like exactly that, a gift.  Farmiga delivers a powerful central performance in the film and surrounds herself with a talented cast who succeed in bringing this tricky material to life.

Working from a screenplay that Carolyn S. Briggs helped adapt from her memoir This Dark World, Farmiga’s film follows the evolution of Corinne, a young woman who accepts Jesus at a young age following a tragedy, and then struggles to find her place within the confines of the church as she grows and evolves.  There are a number of roadblocks.  While she readily embraces Christian salvation when it appears that divine intervention has saved her baby girl from tragedy, it becomes a different story when she realizes that her church group embraces the idea that women must be seen and not heard, especially during services.  Complicating matters is the less than complementary spiritual journey of her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard), who seems to have found what he’s looking for in the church and doesn’t understand why his wife continues to look for something more.

What distinguishes Higher Ground is the way Farmiga recognizes both the euphoria and the loneliness of religious faith.  While this particular film focuses on a Christian evangelical group, the real emphasis is on the dynamics of the community.  Corinne’s husband Ethan embraces this dynamic, but also is willing to sacrifice all other aspects of himself in the process.  It’s not so easy for Corinne, who wants to embrace her faith, but doesn’t seem to feel it on the same visceral level as the others around her. 

The film also reveals that the union of tragedy and religion can cut both ways.  In as much as God can seem to intervene to prevent a tragedy, Corinne is also forced to confront the reality of divine absence when tragedy occurs.  In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a member of the congregation attempts to lead the group in singing the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” when the circumstances have made the reality anything but.  The group begins the song anyway, but the resulting chorus feels like it comes from obligation, not any real sense of comfort.

At the film’s final LA Film Festival screening, Farmiga talked about the important role music plays in Higher Ground.  With a narrative which begins in the 70’s and spans a quarter century, the songs in the film have all been carefully chosen, and anyone with an evangelical background who grew up during this time period will recognize their authenticity. 

But it would be a shame if the only people who saw this film were evangelical Christians.  Both Farmiga and her co-stars, including Leonard, John Hawkes and Dagmara Dominczyk deliver fully fleshed-out characters who try to incorporate their faith or lack thereof into a myriad of other interests, including gardening, sex and playing the accordion. The film embraces the complex humanity of its characters, and recognizes that struggles with faith and doubt often play a crucial part. 

Released in the dog days of August by Sony Classics, Higher Ground runs the risk of slipping through the cracks as a small film with decidedly non blockbuster subject matter.  But for those who don’t mind a little thoughtful fare mixed in with their escapist entertainment,  Higher Ground offers rich rewards.

Higher Ground opens Friday, August 26th at The Landmark in West Los Angeles.  Click here  to read Film Radar’s discussion of the film with co-star Joshua Leonard.

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