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January 13, 2012

Movies You Missed 21: Higher Ground

Higher-groundThis week in movies you missed: Actress Vera Farmiga gets religion in her directorial debut, an irreverent movie that takes faith seriously.

What You Missed

Higher Ground is based on Carolyn Briggs' 2002 memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, which details the author's experiences as a young wife and mother in a radical Pentecostal church in the '70s and her eventual decision to leave.

For the film, the story has been transported from Iowa to rural upstate New York. That was also the setting of the recent indie cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the films have visual similarities, both evoking '70s counterculture photos of youthful (yet retro) communities where the men wear beards and the women are caught somewhere between prairie and hippie fashion.

Corinne (Farmiga) joins one of those communities seeking the certainty that her life as a teen mom married to a would-be rock star (Joshua Leonard) isn't giving her. The film rambles through Corinne's small-town childhood and adolescence — John Hawkes, the cult leader from MMMM, plays her dad — and then through her adulthood and her struggle to be a "good" wife in the church, which means fighting her tendency to stand up and preach.

Wearing off-the-shoulder dresses and flirting with other congregants' husbands are also verboten, which leaves Corinne, a rural housewife who looks like a movie star, with not a ton to do besides singing prettily in church. After circumstances rob her of her best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), she begins to have a crisis of faith.

Why You Missed It

In Burlington, Higher Ground played at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas for five days right before Christmas. Did anyone notice?

Should You Keep Missing It?

I am a sucker for stories about radical religious believers, and especially about women in strict cults or sects. Perhaps because, when I was a kid, my mom shopped around for a "community" to join. We visited the Bruderhof and the Farm and spent several months living with charitable Christians who made you rise at 5 a.m. for chapel. But luckily, my mom eventually decided that moving to the wilds of Lamoille County was an acceptable substitute.

So, I was happy to let Higher Ground fill the "Big Love"-shaped hole in my heart. It's a slow movie, essentially a biopic with no dramatic momentum, but the subject kept me interested.

As a director, Farmiga offers some nifty scenes and setpieces, and the landscape looks luminous. The screenplay, though, has a problem: For some reason, it skips over the crucial time when Corinne and her husband, Ethan, find their charismatic pastor and decide to join his congregation. We go straight from their reading the Bible together (in the aftermath of a traumatic accident) to their being born again. So we never learn how the church looks to outsiders; we're plunged straight into it. This was deliberate, no doubt, but the elision just distanced me from the characters.

Another problem: Farmiga is a great actress, but I had some trouble believing her as this character. She wears a little too much makeup (and too well applied) for a small-town gal; plus, like Angelina Jolie, she's got this inherent Earth Mother glamour.

When she's alone, trying to talk to God, the performance can feel self-conscious. It's a marked contrast from the much subtler work of Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa, who plays Corinne as a teen. (Taissa somehow managed to be subtle even on "American Horror Story," while her TV mom was being raped by a guy in a rubber suit and her TV dad was weeping and masturbating.) In short, I think Farmiga might have benefited from being directed by someone else in a tough role like this.

Verdict: If you're interested in women struggling with issues of faith, Higher Ground is worth seeing. It doesn't belittle religion or preach it; it just treats it as part of human experience. But don't expect a compelling plot or a satisfying resolution. The pleasure of the movie is in the details.

Random Note: Joshua Leonard has been proving his acting chops. No longer will he be known just as "the guy who lost the map in The Blair Witch Project."

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • 1911 (Chinese historical epic from Jackie Chan and Zhang Li)
  • "Boardwalk Empire," season 1
  • The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption (Really? There's a third one?)
  • Sinners and Saints (dark urban noir action with Sean Patrick Flanery)
  • There Be Dragons (director Roland Joffe takes on the Spanish Civil War)

Each week I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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