Everyone’s got something to say about religion. Each book that serves as the foundation for a theology forges our behavior in some shape or form, and while structuring your life on what each book preaches can lead to catharsis, kindness, and healing, it can also be the birth of intolerance and destruction. That’s not to say people aren’t ultimately to blame; though certain things are good or bad no matter how you spin them, we do tend to interpret things how we see fit. This odd mixed bag of morals often leads to serious backlash, manifested in outright intense debates or scathing art pieces. “Up In The Air” actress Vera Farmiga sets her target using the latter weapon, questioning her own faith in directorial debut “Higher Ground.” Sadly, the film feels more like the voice of a junior high student going through a phase of atheism rather than the thoughts of a mature, rational adult.
Based on the Carolyn Briggs memoir dramatically-titled “This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost” (Briggs co-wrote the script with “Kalifornia” and “The Haunting in Connecticut” scribe Tim Metcalfe), ‘Ground’ follows the life of Corinne (played at first by a young and excellent Taissa Farmiga; later real-life big sister Vera will take over) and her ever-changing relationship with the Catholic Church and its patrons. As a young girl, Corinne witnesses the unhealthy (and sometimes violent) relationship between her mother (Donna Murphy) and alcoholic father (John Hawkes), altercations handled as if they were to be wedged in between Fox Kids programming as a PSA rather than a dark, disturbing memory. Eventually this leads her to seek solace in handsome musician Ethan (here played by Boyd Holbrook, and in later years by “Blair Witch Project“/”Humpday” actor Joshua Leonard), a teen that woos her with his soulful tunes and affectionate attitude. There are duets, the inevitable prom night, but also an unfortunate pregnancy, which forces the couple to marry quick and become responsible parents.
Thankfully the romance doesn’t die, and the two remain sweet on one another as they lovingly raise their daughter and follow a strict diet of hippie philosophy. However, after their van veers off-road into a lake and puts their new-born’s life in danger, husband and wife take this as a sign from the Lord. They dedicate themselves to the church, inserting themselves into a small suburban community full of kind, God-fearing families. As accepting and loving as they may be, Corinne soon finds herself not only suppressed in frustrating ways (at one point after telling a story, she is reprimanded for preaching and trying to “teach” the men), but also in a state of religious uncertainty. Being surrounded by legions of those who are not quiet about “hearing the Lord,” our protagonist remains on the outskirts of the party, often feeling alone in the world. And thus, her struggles with faith officially begin.
Drenched with an overbearing warm visual tone (in fact, the “Young Corinne” section might be the warmest-toned movie this writer has ever seen), the look of “Higher Ground” more than hints at the lack of bite the flick actually has. That doesn’t mean it hides its bark; indeed, there’s plenty of attacks involving the doctrine’s lack of a platform for female preachers, questionable Bible verses, overreaction to any sort of revealing clothing (at one point, Farmiga is chastised for sporting a maternity gown that displays her bare shoulders), and, well, that whole speaking-in-tongues thing. But aside from the completely valid call-out on its unequal treatment of women, the rest of the objections feel less like criticisms and more like pot-shots. We’re well aware that those who partake in tongue-speaking look like doofuses. For a century-old religion, aren’t there bigger fish to fry?
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if the entirety of it didn’t feel so trite and awkwardly unfunny, as most of its disparages take the jocular road. Most of its attempts at humor, whether it be a character interaction or a protagonist concocted day-dream, feel like buffoonery that wouldn’t even make the cut in a third-tier Happy Madison production. In church as a youth, Corinne notices the suggestive body language between a woman and a reverend and re-imagines the scenario with the two on top of one another pretending to swim. Once the fantasy concludes, she shakes her head out of it comically, cementing the “humorous” imagining as a rejected “Scrubs” bit. Later, during a conversation involving the lack of sex in one of their marriages, Farmiga and her friend decide to draw their husbands’ penises, her friend insisting that “it helps.” These jokes are not only delivered clumsily, but they’re begging for a laugh track — and one never comes. Instead, there’s grievous silence and the insistent notion driven home by the clowning actors that these scenarios are, in fact, “funny.”
As far as a directing goes, Farmiga is (at best) one that is reluctant to experiment with any flashy tricks or camera movements, preferring to keep things simple and let the acting and story do the talking. Of course, at worst, she’s one that sticks to dead and dull contrivances, pulling together scenes that feel like dry-run rehearsals. The biggest culprits of these are the “past” bits with the child actors; thankfully, once the filmmaker actually appears on screen she’s able to wrangle passable energy and chemistry. But her presence alone doesn’t stop things such as the banal scene coverage, which always consists of an opening two-shot followed by single close-ups. And even though “Higher Ground” manages to fluidly move through decades without a bump, many moments are snapped before they’re even allowed to flourish. This includes, bafflingly, a scene where Hawkes’ character soberly exclaims that his marriage was ruined by Corinne’s miscarried brother. Frankly, if your first instinct as a filmmaker is to cut when someone as interesting as John Hawkes declares a marriage ruined because of an unborn child, you’re not fit to be behind the camera.
But let’s quickly get off the hate train and give credit where credit is due. In the final few scenes, the director fixes all of the problems that plagued the hour and a half before it. Acting is solid, moments are observed rather than dismissed, and Farmiga finds herself rejecting broad attacks at religion and teen jokes in favor of a legitimately heart-breaking gaze at a broken family. The ensemble here — divorced grandparents, divorced parents, and naive children at a birthday party — do their best work, making every subtle glance and line of dialogue count. This combined with an excellently-delivered closing monologue give the picture a graceful note to go out on, trying its damndest to make up for the lousy effort preceding them.
Obviously, it’s too little too late. Make no mistake; we’ve no beef with Vera Farmiga, and no amount of Ryan Gosling could fix this mess. In the end, “Higher Ground” is a flimsily directed, bullying strike against Catholicism that is more immature than profound. [D+]