Based on Carolyn Brigg’s memoir, This Dark World, Higher Ground explores the life of a religious woman, Corinne, struggling with her faith. Starting with her experiences as a little girl and moving through to middle age, the film primarily focuses on Corinne’s baptism into and conflict with a fundamentalist Christian sect. Though she finds immense joy in her new found faith and friends, the more conservative aspects of the church start to wear her down, causing her to question everything she holds most dear.
The tone of the film is funnier than you might have guessed from that basic plot description. Corinne’s desire to speak in tongues, the dresses of the other women in her congregation, and the sex how-to tapes the men use to become better husbands all inspire laughter without maliciousness. The characters in first-time director Vera Farmiga’s film are rarely meant to be laughed at (though I did find myself uncomfortably judging them in a few scenes), but rather to be unknowingly laughed with. Told from the perspective of Corinne looking back at her religious experiences, there is still a sense of pervading joy amongst the silliness. The film seems to be encouraging us not to take life, and subsequently religion, too seriously, even when the most serious things happen.
As is the case for most films she is a part of, Higher Ground is worth seeing for Farmiga’s (Down to the Bone, Joshua, Up in the Air) performance alone. She portrays Corinne with grace and intelligence, but with a hint of absolute foolishness. In fact, every performance in the film is compelling. John Hawkes and Dagmara Dominczyk are especially good as Corinne’s dad and best friend, and Farmiga’s sister, Taissa Farmiga, is great as a younger version of Corinne. As a director, Farmiga certainly knows how to work with actors.
As a storyteller, though, Farmiga could use a bit of downsizing. The story starts, unnecessarily I think, with a child version of Corinne, struggling with her own inadequacies and her parents’ impending separation. She then grows up a little and we see that Corinne might be a budding writer with a romantic side. These are all elements of the story that flesh out the character, but could be incorporated elsewhere in the script – in the fundamentalist aspect of the story that is the most interesting. While the perspective the film takes on religion is compelling, young Corinne’s coming-of-age story feels obligatory and a little cliché. This kind of life span coverage works in a memoir; it doesn’t necessarily work in a small film like Higher Ground, which would have been more effective with a sharper focus.