Ebertfest 2012 – Higher Ground

“Faith must be the hardest thing to have faith in” – a brilliant statement for which I don’t wish to reveal who is responsible.

According to a survey of three, equal to about 0.1875% of the audience, the most well-received film of this year’s Ebertfest was Higher Ground, an introspective part-time comedy about one woman’s search for what she really believes in.  Vera Farmiga, who I’ve only previously seen as the sultry object of George Clooney’s affection if Up in the Air, directs and stars as Corinne Walker, a woman who struggles between blindly following a Christian group and her sense of self and self worth.  After the teenage Corinne (played by Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa) watches her parents’ marriage fall apart, she quickly becomes absorbed with a popular high school guy who plays in a popular local band.  After a quick pregnancy and subsequent wedding, an unfortunate car accident causes them to accept the idea that only God’s mercy saved them.  Not long after, they join a close-knit Christian community, the kind that delivers baptisms in a nearby lake or river.  Farmiga shows a great directorial touch by having Corinne remain underwater for what seems like a long time, likely showing how she’s just not sure about what she’s getting herself into.

In high school she was known for her writing ability and intelligence, but she’s left those aspects of herself behind to become little more than a “supporting actress” to her husband, as is the role of women as dictated in the version of the Bible used by the group.  I admit I don’t know much about the various religious or Christian denominations, and I didn’t realize that many denominations have their own version of the Bible that likely coincides with what they choose to believe.  Thus, I guess, the Bible is not one-size-fits-all.  The wife of the group’s pastor even reprimands Corinne a few times for stepping out of line and doing things that only the men are supposed to do, such as speaking her mind.  This causes Corinne to wonder what has happened to herself.  She just doesn’t seem to feel the calling that the rest of the group feels, bordering on jealousy when she watches her best friend speak in tongues, which leads to a very funny scene in which Corinne attempts to do the same.

Corinne’s sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) quite the opposite, so much that Corinne has her children openly pray for Aunt Wendy to stay out of Hell and away from Satan.  Wendy stays with their family after running from an abusive husband.  Similarly, their mother left their father years ago for similar reasons.  Actually, the movie goes a little too far in depicting men as bad people or at least capable of bad, and most of the women seem either aware or unaware victims in one way or another.  The film is a true story, based on the memoir This Dark World by Caroline Briggs, who sat for a nice QnA after the film.

Corinne’s unhappiness is evident throughout most of the time she’s with the group.  She often says and does the right things, but you can see that the wheels are turning.  During one sermon, Farmiga does a great job of directing herself to seem to be ready to burst open and question everything about this group’s religious ideals.  I was trying to telepathically get her to say something as I was in total agreement with all of her reasons to rebel, as she eventually does.  This happens after a debilitating health issue strikes someone in their community, and Corinne wonders just how the God that she’s heard so much about would let that happen.

During the aforementioned QnA, author and screenwriter Briggs revealed that the film was set in upstate New York, as opposed to Iowa where it happened, because Farmiga was pregnant during the shoot and wanted to remain close to her New York home, only minutes away.  That as disappointing because all it takes is a few changes of highway signs and license plates to allow us to believe we actually were in Iowa.  There was something about the story that just did not feel like New York to me.  Probably the cutest thing said at any of the festival’s QnA was that the scene in which Taissa Farmiga kisses her future husband in the story was not only Taissa’s first on-screen kiss but her first kiss – ever.

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Regardless of the picky details, I and the rest of the audience applauded more loudly for this film than any other that I attended, and it was deserved.  You’re probably not going to find this independent film in any theater, so hopefully you’ve got a Netflix subscription, or perhaps you can call your cable supplier and ask them to include Higher Ground in their OnDemand selections.  Higher Ground takes a very serious and hotly-debated topic and successfully allows us to lighten it up a little while still asking just how much faith do you have in your “faith.”

28 thoughts on “Ebertfest 2012 – Higher Ground

  1. Big subject of discussion this having faith in your faith…
    All I know is that people understand and feel faith and God by their own subjective experience called life…
    Maybe we are all using our inner sonar to answer ourselves some big questions… for some of us the answers come very easy, for some they simply never come…

  2. Thank you for the in-depth review. I am not usually one for “Christian” movies; mostly, they seem overdone, banking on clichés and maudlin repentance scenes to pull the weight of the film, but I do love Vera Farmiga. She was wonderful, too, in that suspense/action/ film that came out last year. The title escapes me just now . . . anyhow, she stars opposite Jake Gyllenhal, and the acting was superb.


  3. I really like this one. Much more than I thought I would. There were times during the movie I just wanted to start clapping for Corinne and caught myself.

    Where I knew I would like A Separation and Take Shelter, I was not expecting to like this one. So in one sense, this was my favorite movie of the festival.

    Great write-up!

  4. This reminded me of a writer friend of mine who, after three failed marriages and a lifetime of self-loating on account of having been adopted, was continuously preyed upon by some “Christian” people from her local church, who have now not only managed to stop my friend from writing (one of the very few things bringing true joy into her life and helping her to deal with her past) but have also deliberately isolated her from all her former friends.

    Thanks for the insightful review…I doubt I’ll get my friend to watch the film with me, she’s been brainwashed too much.

  5. As an atheist, I generally watching these films because when you set the spiritual elements aside, there is still, generally, an underlying philosophy that addresses the human being, not in scientific terms, but in situations where judgment and reason sometime collide with faith and working out the puzzle is both challenging and rewarding. Thanks for the post. I’ve marked this as a “too see” film.

  6. Sounds interesting. Hmmm … but you don’t think it will make it to the independent theaters. Oh well ….

    FYI: Some denominations have prefer a certain version of the Bible (NRSV, NIV, etc), but then make it “their own” through the commentary in the support/study notes.

  7. Hi Rich. Well described.

    Well described. I am a Christian man, and I was resonated with this movie like a tuning fork. I have had so many similar experiences that were authentically portrayed in the film. I’ve been to, and taught at, Vacation Bible School. I know those house churches, and those preachers. I appreciated, given the ending, that it was respectful of those faith experiences. No mocking.

    I plugged into it mostly through the music. I know all of the hymns used in the soundtrack. I sing versions of them every week. Awesome. I wish I could buy a soundtrack, as I said in my Q&A question.

    This was the film of the festival for me, as I knew it would be.

    Sidenote: the film Cara was searching for above is Source Code. It also stars Michelle Monaghan. I met her at EbertFest 2010 when Roger showed her film Trucker.

    • source code. now i remember. thanks for the comments, and this was my favorite film of the fest. i haven’t had your experiences, but it sounds like that must have been great to see a movie that so accurately depicts your past.

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