"Higher Ground," the actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, plays like a fugue. It circles back and folds in on itself, its repeated images — a children's book, worshippers in song, immersion in water — propelled not by forward momentum but by changes of key. This is devotional filmmaking, poring over the line at its core, finer than we realize, between faith and doubt.
Corinne (Farmiga in the adult years, her younger sister and spitting image Taissa as an adolescent) grows up the child of a dissolving marriage, rebelling against the God-fearing members of her community by reading "Lord of the Flies" while her parents rage downstairs. "Higher Ground," in its first two acts at least, follows the standard coming-of-age narrative: good girl rebels, loses virginity to boy in rock band, gets pregnant, has shotgun wedding. Dreams move to back burner.
Lacking the bold, assured quality of her work as an actor, this section of "Higher Ground" suggests that Farmiga the filmmaker doesn't yet have the full courage of her convictions. Like the film's brief flashes of fantasy, the almost apologetic quality of the long setup seems out of place amid the long passages of accomplished direction, adeptly balanced between lyricism and realism. Only with the intercession of a higher power during a near-disaster does "Higher Ground" open up, easing into the hymn-like rhythms that are the source of its deep emotion.
Indeed, music is both form and content in the film: Corinne's struggle to let God into her heart finds expression in song, sermon, speaking in tongues. The film becomes a kind of prayer language for both belief and skepticism. At times, Corinne almost preaches — indeed, she's castigated for doing so by one of the women elders of her evangelical community — and Farmiga, with those wide, blue, imploring eyes, conveys every nuance of solace and pain, joy and dread. I call the film devotional not because it tries to convert you, but because it achieves an understanding of the anxiety implicit in the lines of the song from which the film takes its name: "A higher plane / That I have found / Lord plant my feet / On higher ground." The film is, we see finally, a humane, graceful story about the life of those for whom religion suffuses, or is supposed to suffuse, every aspect of being, and of just how hard that can be.
"Higher Ground" is empathetic filmmaking, displaying a willingness to examine the complexity of a group of people too often smoothed over with the language of "key constituencies" and the "conservative base." Without approving of intolerance, the film depicts the devout in good marriages and bad, safe and endangered — just like the rest of us. Such nuance is not surprising from Farmiga, whose work as an actor has shown a rare commitment to getting under the skin of the damaged, the doubtful, the unsympathetic. Her police psychologist in "The Departed" (Martin Scorsese, 2006) peeled back the layers of cops in a complicated double game; in "Up in the Air" (Jason Reitman, 2009), her character held a secret and then revealed it, stone-faced, in a moment as surprising for its coldness as for its content.
Fitting, then, that Farmiga first drew wide notice for "Down to the Bone" (2005), directed by Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone"): she plays Irene, a working mother and cocaine addict skidding along rock bottom in upstate New York. Almost documentary in style, the low-fi visuals as grim and tired as the surrounds, the film holds close to Irene, ever in tight close-up. Farmiga's striking beauty is leached out, hair stringy, her gauntness unnerving. But the biggest trick is with those eyes — somehow they read not as blue but gray, and Farmiga deadens them, makes her expression hollow without being unfeeling. She, too, is tired, tired of fighting for every scrap. There's more than enough blame to go around in "Down to the Bone," and its characters lob accusations and recriminations like so many grenades. Granik and Farmiga, though, refuse to play this game, and if Irene can be maddening and irresponsible, she can also be sweet, and winning, and ever so sad.
"Higher Ground" and "Down to the Bone" emerge from the same impulse, share the same syntax. The rock bottoms of the drug addict and the potential convert are uncanny messages that signal the change of key. The path to redemption, to grace, is slogging, difficult work; higher ground seems always a climb away.