Give first-time director Vera Farmiga credit for literally aiming high with Higher Ground, her adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs' loss-of-faith tome, This Dark World.
First time out of the gate, it's religion. I can only assume sex and politics are next.
Does she overreach with this tale of a woman who feels like a spiritual sore-thumb in a closely knit Christian Fundamentalist town? Yes, most notably when she drums up sympathy for her character by piling on the Pentacostals.
It's easy to understand why someone would fail to feel the Spirit when surrounded by judgmental hypocrites. I have my issues with judgmental hypocrites, but it's cheap to portray an entire community as such.
What's harder is to represent doubt in the absence of malice. And Farmiga has her moments as a director and lead actor when she achieves this, portraying her character's inability to feel the spirit as a personal source of frustration that separates her from her family and from her best friend.
We first meet Corinne as a child (McKenzie Turner) with a hard-drinking but loving father and a sassy, independent mother, both of whom are skeptical churchgoers. When Corinne's Sunday school class is asked to raise their hands if Jesus is in their hearts, Corinne does so, clearly out of peer pressure (to the eye-rolling of her mother and bad-girl sister Donna).
Thus begins a life of pretending (and skunk-eyes from the "saved" who sense that she isn't).
In high school (played by the director's younger sister Taissa), she meets a bad-boy of her own, a rock guitarist named Ethan (Joshua Leonard) who turns her schoolgirl poems into rock anthems. A pregnancy and shot-gun marriage later, Dad, Mom, baby and drugged-out band barely survive a major traffic accident -- a near tragedy that turns Ethan into a rocker-for-Jesus (with Corinne ambivalently along for the ride).
It's interesting that the spirit moves in Higher Ground like an evening news lineup. People are "saved" when good things happen to them. Their faith is shaken when bad things happen (or, they blame it on Satan, as is the case after a scene of spousal abuse).
Corinne's yearning achieves a kind of sweetness through her friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who is lusty, loving and full of life. Annika is also a bit of an outsider because her tendency to talk in tongues is a bit much, even for this town of believers.
Her love of Annika (which has its sexually charged moments) makes her desperate to feel this non-existent Jesus touch, to the point that she practices speaking in tongues in the bathroom.
By the last act, however, Farmiga's movie has turned into a succession of scolds and veiled threats to the soul, from the minister's wife (who warns her against provocative dress and upstaging the men in conversation), a Christian "marriage councilor" whose approach is God-says-obey-your-husband and Ethan himself, who recognizes the depth of Corinne's doubt before she does. The town itself morphs into a sea of disapproving faces.
Thus, what is supposed to be a crisis of the soul seems more like a no-brainer. Higher Ground ultimately succumbs to the temptation of the obvious.
(This film is rated 14A)
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