Sundance 2011 Review: HIGHER GROUND
Director: Vera Farmiga
Writers: Carolyn Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes
HIGHER GROUND deals with some big, and often controversial, questions regarding religions and one’s sense of community, one’s sense of self and their place in the world. In her directorial debut, Vera Farmiga plays Corinne, a woman searching for meaning and direction in her life, and we explore her struggle as she tries to do so within the constraints of her community’s fundamentalist church.
As the film begins, we see a group of people getting baptized and witness their different reactions to the experience. I found it hard not to take note of those so touched by the experience, as it becomes evident they are clearly searching for something more. Corinne grows up with religion in her life and, like many children, Corinne feels out of step with the majority of her peers so the idea of embracing something that will accept you no matter what is clearly appealing to her. As she grows up and her life takes a few different turns, Corinne finds herself trying to bring this element back into her life. After a near-tragic accident, Corinne and her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), turn towards religion in a big way and make it the cornerstone of both their and their children’s lives.
Both Corinne and Ethan embrace their religion and the community they share it with, but it is Corinne who begins to have hints of doubt as certain aspects of their beliefs work to contain her rather than set her free. Unlike the men in the congregation, the women seem to have more rules placed on them and Corinne finds herself falling out of step with those expectations. These missteps start bringing up the question, “Is someone’s path to faith and enlightenment wrong if it seems different from the rules that define it?”
Faith seems to be about following your heart, and Corinne decided to do just that and walk away from the life she has built for herself to try and find her faith elsewhere. From an attempt at music to new friends, Corinne’s journey seems to take her back to where she was at the beginning of the film – lonely and confused.
I respected that the film did not want to come off preachy, and instead sought to act as a view into a different world and the perspective of those in it, but as Corinne begins to question her faith, the film starts to go off in slightly off-beat directions that ended up taking me out of the story rather than helping keep me in it. I found myself getting lost in the tonal shifts and started to almost lose my faith in the message it was trying to deliver.
Farmiga plays her role with a quiet restraint, but her performance left me wishing I cared about her character’s journey more. The jump from Corinne as a teenager (played by Farmiga’s younger sister, Taissa) to Farmiga’s portrayal of her as an adult seemed to happen all too suddenly and kept me from really feeling invested in her the character.
I understood why the film played in the grays rather than black and white, but in doing so I never felt quite in tune with Corinne, her journey, or the story itself. There are no easy answers to the questions posed throughout the film, and while HIGHER GROUND succeeds in keeping from leaning too far one way or the other, this awareness of straddling that line kept the film from ever finding its true voice.
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