“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.”