Each of us searches for personal meaning in life, a purpose. Some use a holy book in that search. “Higher Ground” tells a story of a woman, Corinne’s, walk with her faith, from elementary age into middle age. Hers is a stuck in coming-of-faith story. When you finally feel a firm grip on how life works, your place in the world and how you’ll work that, that’s one definition of coming-of-age. Coming-of-faith is when you feel that with your faith. To be stuck in coming-of-faith is when you’ve not yet found a firm ground or steady conviction when it comes to your faith or god.
A young, critically thoughtful Corinne (Courtesy: Sony Classics)
This interesting, profound drama, adapted from the memoir, “This Dark World,” by Carolyn S. Briggs, opens at the Edina Cinema on September 9th.
“Higher Ground” is a feature-length film, directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, about how a girl, raised in a verbally abusive household, sticks with a choice after having committed herself to a conviction, Christ, without being convicted. She’s hungry for a church to guide her; maybe jumping the gun will be the catalyst?
Corinne wants to write fiction and live immersed in a world of art and critical thought. A man and a moment of sexual hunger overtake that: she clicks with Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a like-minded, sensitive musician, concedes her virginity, clings to and finally marries him, in time for her pregnancy to show. He’s provincial, with a level of curiosity that leaves him content with family and without questions that challenge or test him.
Another sign and symbol of their disconnection: shortly after marrying, they commiserate about opportunities lost in having a child: he wants to perform with a band. She, a resolute, practical dreamer admits that she’d love to write novels, but hasn’t the time. And kisses her baby with adoration.
Ethan flails in one last gesture of rebellion. He takes his band, and Corinne and their daughter on a music gig – ill-fated. His band mates are sophomoric, and want neither Corinne nor a baby sharing the band bus. Straining to be a diplomat, and good sport, she’s at her wit’s end. Their daughter needs a play or nap space in this Animal House setting. Ethan screams for her to use a cooler! Soon after stowing the baby, Ethan is distracted and crashes their bus. They all bolt from the bus, Ethan dragging Corinne along with him. She alone remembers that their daughter’s in the cooler – on the bus! Once safe, Ethan declares “God saved her.” A hasty conclusion?
A happy young marriage? (Courtesy: Sony Classics)
Corinne poses questions, which no one around her is ready for, or leave them comfortable. As her children grow, Corinne becomes increasingly chafed by her husband, Ethan, and the church’s disinterest in her questions and spurning of her obstinacy. Neither of them considers pursuing an examined life, as Aristotle extolled, and which she wants. This clashes with who she wants to be, but at the same time, she tries to focus on what God wants from her. She still wonders: how to submit to God when vital, incisive questions nag her?
“Higher Ground” is a quiet, patient story about a girl-come-young-woman’s spiritual search and yearning. It resembles a chronic, persistent chafe similar to many of those in Martin Scorsese’s stories. “The Last Temptation of Christ” is the obvious one. There Jesus is offered the option to simply live a human, mortal life, with a family, instead of living with the sacrifice and selfless service. Corrine has already sacrificed her idea of a happy life in order to appease her church. And she’s losing herself.
At the end of a scene Ethan sees, written on the wall, how far she has drifted from him, and how impotent he is in the face of that. He finally sees a chasm between them. He just doesn’t get her. While talking about their children, and a petty complaint about her, she runs to their station wagon and away from him.
A man, different from Ethan, makes her glow? (Courtesy: Sony Classics)
She’s fed up with him, or how far he has drifted from her. She locks the driver’s side door. He takes the seat behind her, and tries to convince her to stay docile, to be Godly, but doesn’t know how to fight that without hitting her – he seizes her throat from behind, and squeezes, more to vent than to hurt her. But that’s it!
She needs to try life independent of Ethan, and maybe find God again that way.
Later, after leaving Ethan, she has just testified to her church about not yet having found home within God, after more than 20 years. The final shot is potent and subtle: Corrine looks back at the congregation with hope and uncertainty.
Religious movies can be difficult when they paint outside of the lines, whether those are bound by belief, outright doubt or vice. The zealous Christian probably wants a movie that’ll affirm their convictions and submission to God’s will. Those on the other, secular, side want something that’ll confirm theirs; they’re tired of hearing dramatic, dogma of their imminent damnation.
“Higher Ground” is a good film. If you demand a fast-paced, metropolitan take on religious life, this might refresh you. If you sympathize or are comfortable with tough questions left dangling for Corrine or with the way she pursues her faith, then this’ll suit you. If not, still try it. Thoughtful, even-handed stories about religious or spiritual life are rare.