*Higher Ground (R)
Kimball's Peak Three
Whether or not America is ready for an inquisitive, empathetic film about Christian fundamentalism, it's got one now from Vera Farmiga, the disarmingly graceful star and first-time director of Higher Ground.
Subject matter aside, our usual movie-industry mathematics suggest a dispiriting equation here: star vehicle plus directorial debut equaling vanity project. In Farmiga's defense, she took the part first, then took the reins after development had stalled, just to get the movie made. Also in her defense, it is a rich and charming and career-advancing piece of work, as much so as any unabashedly personal view of spiritual crisis can be.
Higher Ground was adapted by Tim Metcalfe and Carolyn S. Briggs from Briggs' book, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost. Uninterested in raw saintliness or reactionary point-scoring satire, Farmiga governs the proceedings with an equanimous attitude. Faith is a palpable and perpetual force in people's lives, she calmly asserts, and so is doubt.
We first meet our protagonist, Corinne, and her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) at a fateful moment in their life together. The film has a way of implying that all their moments are fateful, and it's something to do with generous views of the actors' faces: Farmiga's expectedly luminous, Leonard's half-obscured by beard and sunglasses yet still, importantly, wide open.
This beginning, from which the story rewinds to Corinne's eager churchgoing girlhood (with Farmiga's younger sister Taissa very naturally filling in), also allows a telling glimpse of the couple's evangelical community. We get our bearings by way of a mild aesthetic epiphany: that it's not such a short way to go between today's retro-styled hipsters and your average hippie church circa 1970.
In other words, if some of these folks seem a little like poseurs, well, don't we all seek approval once in a while? There's something touching about the steady effort they make to fit in, and functionally useful, too: Higher Ground unfolds as a description of the challenges posed by critical thinking to one well-behaved woman's increasingly uncertain faith.
The filmmaker, bless her, remains ever-receptive. If the usual easygoing exactitude of her acting is less evident in her direction, that may just be a matter of more practice; as creative expressions go, film production doesn't often encourage succinctness.
Farmiga knows the game at least well enough to not seem like a rookie. It's in the faces, yes — her fine and shrewdly chosen supporting cast includes John Hawkes, Bill Irwin and Donna Murphy — but also in having a sense of how to play things verbally, how to talk things through.
Higher Ground has its share of sermons, but the emphasis is on personal conversation, particularly between Corinne and her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), a confidante. We learn a lot when the rowdy, randy lingua franca of their girl-talk has translation issues with the trickery of tongues.
In envy of Annika's Pentecostal muttering, Corinne shuts herself in the bathroom and lets loose a marvelous inversion of the De Niro mirror standoff from Taxi Driver. Here we see not a heart forcing itself to close down, but rather the opposite, and the funny, savory irony of Corinne's entreaties to the man upstairs: You not talkin' to me?