When Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, screened at Sundance this year, I caught the first 90 minutes before having to run to another screening, and wrote this:
In some ways, her film mirrors (Kevin Smith's) Red State, minus the horror-film overlay. Farmiga plays a woman who is a member of a small fundamentalist church, who begins to chafe at the restrictiveness of women's roles in that church. Interestingly, the serious part of the discussion was less interesting than the flashes of humor that Farmiga inserted; indeed, it might have been a more interesting film as a dramatic comedy. But that's based on seeing it in an incomplete way; I'll reserve final judgment until I see the whole film.
But when I caught the whole thing recently, I came away feeling like I'd seen a solid film by a self-assured director, one who didn't have an axe to grind dealing with a subject that could have been spun that way. Instead, Farmiga tells one woman's story, a search for faith in a setting that could easily be scolded or satirized.
Indeed, Higher Ground seems like a film of the moment, given the focus placed on faith by politicians who make a show of theirs. Written by Tim Metcalfe and Carolyn Briggs (based on Briggs' memoir), the film focuses on Corinne (Farmiga), who has devoted her life to faith without thinking too much about it. It's only when she starts to have questions that she gets in trouble.
We first see Corinne as a child, professing her faith to her pastor in Sunday Bible school. Still, as a teen, she's not much of a seeker. Instead, she's a would-be writer who attracts the attention of a classmate who is a star in a local rock band. The two pair off and, eventually, marry in a ceremony at which she is so pregnant that it comes seemingly moments before the birth of her first child.
Still, the rock'n'roll life is their path -- until an accident with the band bus nearly kills them and their baby. Awed at the miracle of their own survival, they plunge into a fundamentalist church that apparently has its own community in the Catskills.
The adult Corinne wants to know God and have profound interactions with Him. She's a little jealous of her best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who is able to speak in tongues when the spirit flows through her. But she also relishes the Bible study groups, where she can listen to their pastor (Norbert Leo Butz) analyze scripture in ways she finds meaningful.
When she starts doing it herself, however, she is admonished (by the pastor's wife) not to take on a role that is meant for men. It's as if a light-switch is thrown -- and she begins to notice that, in fact, women are treated like children -- or worse -- by the men in their church.
This review continues on my website.