Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie Review: Higher Ground

Higher Ground *** ½  
Directed by: Vera Farmiga.
Written by: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs.
Starring: Vera Farmiga (Corinne), Joshua Leonard (Ethan), Norbert Leo Butz (Bill), Donna Murphy (Kathleen), Dagmara Dominczyk (Annika), Nina Arianda (Wendy), John Hawkes (CW), Taissa Farmiga (Young Corinne), Bill Irwin (Pastor Bud), Boyd Holbrook (Young Ethan), Sean Mahon (Liam Donovan), Taylor Schwencke (Wendy), Kaitlyn Rae King (Teenage Wendy), McKenzie Turner (Young Corrine).

Most movies about faith either mock it, or whole heartedly embrace it. So we get movies that either cater to the religious people –that show immoral people find the light of God and become saved – or movies that simply like to make fun of religious people. Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground is neither of those things. Instead, it is a movie about one woman who at first embraces her faith with everything she has, and then gradually falls away from it. It’s not that she stops believing in God, it’s just that she starts asking more questions – and finds her church’s blind praise of God, and their very definite ideas of what faith means, to be too restrictive. At the end of the movie, I think she still believes in God – or at least wants to believe – but cannot be a part of what has consumed her for so long.

As a child, Corinne is not raised in an overly religious family, but they do make her attend church and Sunday school. One day the pastor asks all the kids to close their eyes and listen for Jesus knocking on the door to their heart – and then to raise their hand if they want to let Jesus in. Only three kids do – and Corrine is one of them. But because of her family – her weak willed, alcoholic father (John Hawkes), her flirtatious mother (Donna Murphy) and mocking sister, she doesn’t really become religious. As a teenager, she falls in love with a musician named Ethan. They marry young, and have a daughter, and on day on the tour bus crashes into a lake. Their daughter is trapped inside the bus, but Ethan pulls her out at the last second. This leads Ethan to a religious conversion – God saved their daughter. Flash forward a few years, and their family has grown. Corinne (now played by Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are full blown Christians. Their Pastor is Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), and they fully embrace the Born Again Christian lifestyle of the 1970s, which mixes some hippie habits with their dogma. They are raising their family, and they are happy. They are a part of a community of people who are nice to them, and work hard to support their family, and live life according to the bible.

But things aren’t quite as happy as they appear for Corinne. She starts having doubts – and they creep in slowly. First being criticized for talking too much (we don’t want to look like we’re “teaching” the men, she’s told), or because her dress, which is positively old fashioned by most standards, is “too revealing” because it shows her shoulders. Then there are some implied sexual thoughts – she looks at little too longingly at her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), and another male member of their congregation – and perhaps Ethan isn’t quite the lover he wishes he was. When Annika gets a brain tumor, and ends up alive, but essentially a shadow of her former self, the doubts become full blown. How could this be a part of God’s plan?

There are perhaps a couple of moments where Farmiga’s film goes a little too far, and perhaps crossing a line into mocking the religious beliefs of the group – the men listening to a cassette about how to please their wives for example. But for the most part, this is a film that presents them as decent, God loving people. They are happy in their beliefs. They are nice people and their beliefs are sincere. What the movie does portray is how all consuming, and eventually suffocating, all this belief can be. Eventually, Corinne rediscovers some of who she was as a teenager – when she naughtily tried to check out Lord of the Flies from the library. She rediscovers her love of reading books other than the bible and her desire to want something more than just talk about God and how wonderful He is all the time. She thinks there has to be something more out there other than the life she has been living. As a teenager, she wanted to be a writer, and eventually the woman whose memoir this is based on, will become just that.

In the end, I have a feeling that many audience members will be frustrated by Higher Ground for the very reason I find it so daring and perceptive – because it never really chooses side, and ends with the lead character still confused. She has neither returned to be consumed by her religion as she was for much of the movie, nor has she become an atheist. Instead, she seems locked in her uncertainty. The movie quotes the bible that preaches against being “luke warm” in terms of religion – and how God hates it (he will “spew you from his mouth”). The reason that Corinne needs to leave her group is because to them, being luke warm is worse than not believing at all – you need to fully embrace religion, with no doubts or uncertainly. And that is precisely what Corinne cannot do. In the end, she decides to examine herself – her complex relationship with God, with her husband, with her children – and find out who she is. How many movies are about that? I think that if people go in with open minds into Higher Ground, they can find much to relate to – no matter what they believe.

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