Higher Ground

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: R
Genre: Drama
Pregnant, married, and awkward at eighteen years old, Carolyn Briggs grows more and more interested in Jesus, eventually giving herself over to a radical New Testament church. It's only when her marriage begins to unravel that Carolyn dares to question the religious dogma she has embraced for her entire adult life.
Starring: Donna Murphy, Vera Farmiga, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Irwin, Joshua Leonard, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Boyd Holbrook
Director: Vera Farmiga
Running time: 1:49
Release: Opened Sep 16, 2011
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Editorial Review

A test of faith fails to inspire

By Michael O'Sullivan

Friday, Sep 16, 2011

Early critics have made much of the surprisingly frank way that "Higher Ground" tackles religion. And the film is refreshingly free of proselytizing.

In its place, however, is a whiff of condescension.

First-time director Vera Farmiga, who also plays the heroine, Corinne, brings an actor's sensitivity to her behind-the-camera work. The cast of "Higher Ground" (which includes Joshua Leonard as Corinne's earnestly uncurious Christian husband, Dagmara Dominczyck as her earthy best friend and Bill Irwin as the only-slightly-creepy pastor of their hippie-meets-born-again sect) is uniformly solid.

But despite all its honesty, the film ultimately feels like a bit of a cop-out.

Corinne's faith - which swings from doubt to surety after her infant daughter is rescued from a bus accident, and then back to doubt again when tragedy strikes another loved one - is shown as something fickle and insubstantial. Which of us wouldn't be ready to believe in miracles after our baby was spared from death? And whose belief in God wouldn't be shaken by the seemingly random cruelties of fate? Corinne's spiritual journey, which is buffeted by winds beyond her control, may be understandable, may even be universally human. But as storytelling, it feels like taking the easy way out.

Show me someone who believes - whose faith endures - despite dramatic miracles or misfortunes, and I'll show you a movie.

"Higher Ground," adapted for the screen by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from "This Dark World," Briggs's 2002 memoir of faith and disillusionment - isn't a story of faith, but of faithlessness. What's bold or groundbreaking about that?

Maybe it's the fact that religion is even in the movie at all. Here, it's just another fact of everyday life to be dealt with, like work, sex or traffic jams. Dominczyck is particularly appealing as Corinne's friend Annika, who shows Corinne that there's nothing wrong - or areligious - about the pleasures of the flesh. This, despite the fact that Corinne and the other female members of her slightly cultish church seem to have been made to wear deliberately dowdy dresses by the patriarchal Pastor Bud. They look like frumpy sister wives in a polygamist sect.

The title of the film introduces some intriguing ambiguity. On the one hand, "Higher Ground" seems to refer to Corinne's yearning for a spiritual height she can never attain. In that regard, it's her failing, not religion's, that lays her low.

On the other hand, the ending of the film suggests an entirely different reading. Late in the story, Corinne meets a hunky, worldly mailman (Sean Mahon) who hints that there may be more to life - books! romance! - than she's used to. In that sense, Corinne does, in fact, seem to reach higher ground. Her attitude at the end of the film, although tinged with regret, feels slightly superior toward those who still believe.

Contains sexual dialogue and images and some obscenity.