By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 24, 2011 at 2:09AM
There's a single cut in "Higher Ground," actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut about a crisis of faith, that proves the Oscar-nominated actress also knows how to direct. While 1960's-era bohemian couple Corinne (Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are on the road touring with Ethan's band, their van suddenly careens off the road and begins sinking into a swamp. The couple escapes just in time to realize their newborn child remains inside the vehicle; Ethan dashes back into the half-submerged wreck, and the camera remains on his distraught face as he suddenly finds what he's looking for. Farmiga, however, withholds the details of his discovery until an abrupt scene change: The entire family unit lies together in bed, safely reunited if more than a little shell-shocked.
With that tightly executed sequence, Farmiga ably proves her filmmaker chops. Using the language of the medium to generate elevated suspense, she moves from an erratic moment in which life becomes a brutally unpredictable force to the eerie calm that follows a close call. The incident torpedoes the couple's decision to heighten their godly devotion, and the family settles into the fundamentalist Christian community where they will spend much of their adult lives. For the majority of its running time, "Higher Ground" is an earnest, sometimes bland and unsophisticated look at Corinne's undulating relationship to spirituality in general and Christian dogma in particular. But it's also a surprisingly well-made character study outside of its specific theme.
Farmiga's technical competence as a director provides "Higher Ground" with its main saving grace. Adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir "This Dark World," the story follows Corinne from her troubled Midwestern childhood--which was marred by her parents' separation--and continues through her many stages of religious catharsis. By today's standards, there's something off-putting and even alarming about a faith-positive movie that has virtually no amount of cynicism buried in its DNA. The more impressive feat is that Farmiga pretty much pulls it off, if only by satisfying her fairly tame agenda.
With a uniformly strong cast, including John Hawkes as Farmiga's alcoholic father and Farmiga's sister Taissa as the teenage Corinne, "Higher Ground" nimbly progresses through the soul searching protagonist's formative years before her midlife crisis takes center stage. At church gatherings, she's assailed for speaking up in an authoritative fashion typically reserved for the men of the group. At a certain point she starts to drift away, only to come back with some hesitation when sudden tragedy strikes. Her marriage to Ethan grows cold, ironically stunted by the distance created between them by church ritual. Egged on by her good friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), Corinne finds a happy medium, exploring sexual desire without compromising her convictions.
Yet even when "Higher Ground" enters these vaguely subversive waters, it maintains a uniformly cheery pose. Facing a made-for-TV sentimentalism ingrained in the plot, Farmiga can only take the character's journey so far before falling back on its dogmatic backbone. The screenplay suffers from an overabundance of dialogue about the struggles of accepting unqualified beliefs, and sometimes feels like it's just a few paces away from faith-based motives of the "Left Behind" franchise.
Fortunately, Farmiga isn't so daft. Her movie works decently enough as an open book, with Corinne's commitment to her Christian world always in question. It begins with her adult baptism, a seeming act of conviction that starts to unravel over the course of the next two hours. In the final shot, she's attentive to the nature of her religion and noticeably conflicted about it. It's an ambiguous finale, but with it, "Higher Ground" arrives at a very precise destination.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Given its themes, "Higher Ground" has major potential to receive a strong reaction from Christian audiences around the country, while performing solidly in major cities thanks to Farmiga's star power. Sony Pictures Classics releases it this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.