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Higher Ground

Vera Farmiga stars in and directs "Higher Ground."

Wrestling with Angels

Higher Ground

It’s not at all surprising that the movies, financially compelled to attract as wide an audience as possible, generally shy away from religion. In recent years there have been a handful of Christian-produced films that are about as mass market as Christian rock, which is to say strictly preaching to the choir. And there’s no lack at the other end, movies in which religious belief is shorthand for “loony.” Any serious take on the subject is likely to be met with either indifference or antagonism, particularly given the religious right’s noisy tendency to condemn anything which they (often inaccurately) see as disagreeing with them. Better not even to stir that cauldron.

Still, most Americans were raised with some sort of religious training, and even those who grow out of it often retain an emotional connection. That’s the audience who will get the most out of Higher Ground, a beautifully rendered film that marks the directorial debut of actress Vera Farmiga.

Most recently seen playing faux Chekhov with Keanu Reeves in Henry’s Crime, Farmiga stars as Corinne, a woman whose religious training doesn’t come from her family. As a child, she raises her hand when her Sunday school teacher asks, Who wants to invite Jesus into their hearts? but she’s only looking for attention. It’s the same curiosity that leads her to find a way to sneak out of the library the books the librarian feels are inappropriate for her.

A committed conversion comes as an adult, when she and her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) decide that the safety of their infant daughter after an accident was a blessing from God. They join a suburban church (though the location isn’t specified, the film was shot in the Hudson Valley) and become born again.

This is the point at which we might expect the movie to become a horror story of repression and cultism. Instead, we see friends and neighbors talking through their teachings and beliefs and trying to apply them to their everyday lives. Adapted from the memoir This Dark World by Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-wrote the screenplay), Higher Ground attempts neither to proselytize nor belittle. If it does occasionally have fun with the struggles of its characters, as when the men listen to a Christian guide to better sex, it’s more a portrait of the times (from the mid sixties through the early 80s).

Still, over the years Corrine finds that doubts growing louder in her mind. Married too young, she is dissatisfied with a husband who loves her but doesn’t understand her. And no matter how hard she seeks it, she finds prayer and hymns insufficient to deal with deeper pain when tragedy strikes her best friend.

Deliberately paced, Higher Ground avoids false drama, even downplaying it where it seems to exist in Briggs account. (Audiences will probably be quicker to anger at the sexism that Corrine encounters than she is.) It questions the possibility of spiritual comfort while acknowledging the yearning for it. And while it may wholly satisfy few, it should pique the interest of any open minded viewer.

Watch the trailer for Higher Ground

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