If, like myself, you are both a Catholic and a cultural snob and find it all too easy to sneer at Protestant fundamentalist sects that seem awash in bare-bones ugliness—of architecture, language, and rite—and whose members display an enthusiasm during worship that resembles hysteria, you have to be grateful for such films as Tender Mercies, The Apostle, and now Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground. These movies breach our snobberies with evocations of the spiritual comfort and social solidarity such congregations can offer. But Farmiga, adapting Carolyn S. Briggs’s memoir, This Dark World, has taken on a double task, not only to portray a fundamentalist faith community with sympathy but to show how her heroine, Corinne (played by Farmiga), must finally step away from it to maintain her integrity.

Corinne’s first step toward religious commitment is an ambiguous one. As a Midwestern child she hears the pastor of her family’s church (its denomination is unidentified) urge his young class at vacation Bible school to pledge themselves to Jesus if they sincerely feel the call. The kids are told to close their eyes while listening for this call, but Corinne keeps hers open, sees two classmates volunteer by raising their hands, then raises hers too. So does her pledge come merely from an urge to feel special? To be part of an elite?

Corinne grows into a thoughtful adolescent (played beautifully by Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa), who wants to be a writer. Made pregnant by her high-school sweetheart Ethan, she seems about to settle into the life of homemaker for her neophyte-rocker husband when a car accident that almost kills their baby shocks the couple into religion. Welcomed by a fundamentalist community, both seem not only happy but positively blissful. Over time fissures appear. Corinne chafes at the community’s paternalism (after speaking up during a service she is rebuked for “preaching to the men”), its cultural bareness, and an occasional primness that suggests prurience (the pastor’s wife warns her against wearing a perfectly modest maternity dress that merely reveals her shoulders). The tipping point comes when her best friend, the sensual but pious Anika, is rendered a shell of herself by a cancer operation. Does humble acceptance of catastrophe—“not our will, oh Lord, but thine”—only repress the fears and doubts such horrors stir? In any case Corinne cannot quite accept what’s happened to her friend. She quarrels violently with her husband, leaves him, and finally takes wistful leave of her fellow worshipers, departing not as an unbeliever but as a spiritual pilgrim. She admits that they occupy the highest ground but she can’t occupy it. Not yet.

What makes this film believable is the way the script (by memoirist Briggs and Tim Metcalf, though I suspect the cast improvised much of the dialogue) lays the ground for the heroine’s discontent early but without melodramatic danger signals. In fact, close-ups of Corinne’s face are foreboding enough; both the Farmiga sisters have countenances alive with the need to doubt, question, explore, communicate, and debate. Since the profound spiritual strength of her community, wonderfully supportive of Anika’s family after her surgery, resides in their ability to accept, not question, there’s going to be trouble with Corinne.

I think this gripping film could have been even stronger if the script had been more specific about how the public events of the story’s era (mostly the 1980s, I’m guessing) did or didn’t come to Corinne’s attention, and whether she felt that her community, hunkered down in faith, was saving her from the era’s moral dangers or was preventing her from creatively participating in its social and cultural struggles. Did absolutely nothing of the great wicked wide world leak into this milieu? I couldn’t tell if the filtering was being done by the community or by the filmmaker.

But what Higher Ground does dramatize trenchantly is the paradoxical way this community encourages family unity yet also exacerbates familial problems. Since they’re taught that domestic harmony is essential to Christian values, spouses may experience normal domestic frictions and the simmering down of sexual passion as calamities, and one partner may come to regard the other as a backslider or even a traitor, not only to the spouse but to God. When the sex life of Corinne and Ethan dwindles, he upbraids her in religious terms instead of honestly discussing the matter. When she tells him off, he starts to throttle her. That he then externalizes the cause of his violence by telling Satan to leave him is both telling and depressing. The coup de grace for the marriage is delivered by, of all people, a Christian marriage therapist, whose idea of counseling is to put all the blame on Corinne, warning her that she’s risking hellfire.

Still, most of the congregation remains likable, even admirable, particularly its pastor, rendered by Norbert Leo Butz, not as a Christianized Big Brother but as a mensch so entirely free of smugness and bigotry that it makes Corinne’s decision to leave his fold all the more of a struggle for her and all the more compelling for us.

As for Farmiga’s performance, anyone who has seen this actress on TV talk shows struggling to give utterly honest answers to banal questions can imagine what it means for her to embody a character searching for her spiritual core. In interviews, that honesty can make her maddening as she lapses into long thoughtful silences, but in the movie Farmiga’s superb timing and coiled energy harness that honesty and channel it into an absorbing performance.

In fact, Higher Ground is very much an actor’s movie, and the director uses her camera somewhat as a documentary director would, not for composing beautiful pictures but to seek out the right face at the crucial moment, to fasten on a speaker or a listener, or to catch a gesture that says more than a line of dialogue. This is not one of those films that leaves you with just the contours of a tale in your mind. Rather, you come away with the feeling that you’ve just been to a meeting filled with a lot of interesting people, and now you need time to sort out your impressions of them.

My only major reservation is that each scene drives a little too unerringly to its “point” without taking the unpredictable little detours that distinguish an unforgettable scene from a merely functional one. For instance, there’s nothing comparable here to that moment in Tender Mercies when Tess Harper, about to pray for husband Robert Duvall, who may have gone off on a bender, is innocently quizzed by her little boy about drugs. She blows up at him unfairly, then tries to recover her calm for the prayer. Why the interruption enriches the scene is difficult to say (is the wife’s customary sweetness thrown into relief by the temporary flare-up?), yet it does. Because it contains many moments like that, I’ve been able to watch Tender Mercies six times and am ready for a seventh. But when I took a second look at Higher Ground, I discovered I’d “got it” all the first time. But don’t cheat yourself of one viewing.

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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