Higher Ground (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Young Corinne joined a fundamentalist community and started to devote herself to God when she was a child. She found comfort in God, religion, and her close community when her parents (John Hawkes, Donna Murphy) could no longer stand to be in each other’s presence. When Corinne was a teen (Taissa Farmiga), she had her first child with Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), a musician with dreams of making it big. They got married and, like all marriages, it was tough especially since they were so young. But there were good times.
Now with three children, Corinne (Vera Farmiga) begins to doubt. No matter how much she endures circle of prayers and ponders the possible meanings behind the words of God, she cannot help but wonder what else is out there or that if she is missing something more profound and liberating than what is currently in her life. She wonders if it is time for a change.
“Higher Ground,” based on the memoir “This Dark World” by Carolyn S. Briggs, is a rare film because it is able to directly deal with a person falling in and out of faith without pandering. Propelled by Vera Farmiga’s humanistic direction, it is consistently focused in telling Corinne’s journey and why the decisions she makes are right for her. However, the material is not just about faith. As she begins to consider life outside of her religion, her marriage with Ethan (Joshua Leonard) starts to fall apart.
It is first and foremost about what many people feel and go through. When it comes to Corinne and Ethan’s marriage, there is genuine insight because it is made clear that their troubles is not about what he does or does not do to or for her. There are just those times when you realize that your love for a person is no longer on the same level as before. There is room to wonder. Maybe the person Corinne is now is so different from many years ago that she has learned to function on autopilot and settled.
“At least I’m trying,” Ethan says to Corinne as they watch their son playing soccer. Perhaps that is not the point. Or maybe it is. Corinne and Ethan’s marriage is handled so thoughtfully, it is difficult to pick a side. We feel for both the man and the woman because we realize that Corinne doubting her faith affects both of them deeply. Despite the fact that they have fights that range from passive-aggressiveness, where one can barely look at the other while sitting around the dinner table, to full-on physical and verbal confrontations, not once do we question their devotion for each other.
And yet their love faces some challenges. As their marriage falls apart, Corinne begins to look at a married man in their fundamentalist circle. There is also Liam (Sean Mahon), her scholarly mail carrier from Dublin. They meet in the library quite often. He recommends her novels and books of poetry. She welcomes his flirtations to signal her availability. Still, it is not just about being with a man so she can live happily ever after. It is about exploring possibilities–seeds that might grow into something new.
“Higher Ground,” based on the screenplay by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, is smartly written and directed because it underlines what makes the characters flawed and human rather than what makes them “soldiers of God.” I do not subscribe to a religion but I always appreciate it when something or someone attempts to make me want to understand more without the approach feeling like a lecture or an obligation.