November 15, 2012
Higher Ground – US, 2011
Vera Farmiga’s moving film Higher Ground is a film that is neither pro-religion nor anti-religion. It is not a film that ends with an affirmation of the existence of God, yet nor does it end with a negation of God either. Instead, it is a film about one woman’s life-long struggle with religion, and as such, it is probably a film that many people will relate to in some way. After all, I suspect most people, even the most devout, have had a crisis in faith at some point in their lives.
The central character in the film is Corinne Walker (Vera Farmiga). The film opens with her baptism and then takes viewers back to her childhood to see the events that led her to that particular moment in time. In a series of quick vignettes, we watch as Corinne experiences family tragedy and witnesses the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. In a scene that reminded me of the ending of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, we watch as a very young Corinne raises her hand when her Sunday Bible school teacher asks who has felt Jesus’ touch that day. It is clear that she hasn’t, but her hand goes up because she wishes she had. We also witness a librarian’s attempt to stifle Corinne’s natural curiosity by refusing to let her check out what some people have long considered a morally-unacceptable novel, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It goes without saying that the librarian’s endeavors only makes Corrine more determined to read it.
One day Corinne meets Ethan Miller (early on played by Boyd Holbrook; later played by Joshua Leonard). Ethan is the lead singer of a high school rock band called the Renegades, and he suggests that the two of them write a song together. I suspect that the pursuit of a new song was only part of what motivated him. Well, one thing leads to another, and soon, they’re married with a child on the way. Hardships ensue of course, and as a result, she puts her dream of being a writer on hold. Ethan, however, holds onto his dream of being a rock star somewhat longer. A near-death experience changes everything.
The rest of the film is made up of segments of Corinne’s life, each one detailing a stage in her religious experience. At times, she seems sure of her faith, and at other times, her confidence fails her. In one pivotal scene, she stands in front of a bathroom mirror and says she can’t feel the presence of a higher power. She then makes repeated appeals for a sign, yet if one indeed comes, she doesn’t recognize it. Interestingly, Ethan’s faith appears to be unshakeable, perhaps partly as a result of the privileges that his gender brings him.
It is impossible to describe the religious community in the film as anything other than patriarchal. The men have a higher place than the women, and it is expected that only they or senior female members will deliver prayers. The men also seem to be in the habit of controlling the flow of information, and therefore, information that should probably be shared openly is dispensed in closed huddles, away from the ears of the men’s wives. The men also see themselves as responsible for the preservation of the community. In one awkward moment for all involved, the leader of their church, Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), gives a version of “the talk” to the men of his church, cautioning them to take care of their wives’ “needs” if they want to avoid being abandoned one day. The message here seems to be that physical satisfaction is more important than mental satisfaction, a sentiment which I’m pretty sure Corinne would not agree with.
The film is consistently moving, and Corinne proves to be a very sympathetic character. I admired the way the film honestly depicts what some religious communities are like without being overtly critical of them. They simply have their ways, and not everyone is able to abide by them. If audience members feel uneasy at particular things depicted in the film, it is likely that Corinne shares their discomfort. It should be said, however, that not every woman in their community feels the same way. Of course, not everything works as well as it should. There’s a drawing contest between Corinne and her best friend, Anika, that I’m not sure what to make of, and it is unfortunate that the film ends with a scene that many viewers will be able to see coming a mile away. This does not mean that what happens in the scene is not perfectly reasonable, for it is entirely likely that a person like Corinne would do just what she does. However, when a film ends in exactly the way you thought it would, it is hard for it not to be a letdown.
That said, I must admit to being uncommonly moved by many of the film’s characters, by the strength and steadfastness of Pastor Bill, by the joy and devotion of Anika, and by the ability of a married couple to be able to accept that their plans – having a child – may not be “His” plans. People face personal conflicts such as these on a daily basis, and it is nice to see them treated so respectfully. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars
*I extend my thanks yet again to Roger Ebert for bringing this film to my attention.