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Vera Farmiga in HIGHER GROUND (Photo: Molly Hawkey/Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed by Vera Farmiga
Produced by Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Matt Parker & Jon Rubinstein
Written by Tim Metcalfe & Carolyn S. Briggs, based on her memoir This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
USA. 109 min. Rated R
With Vera Farmiga, McKenzie Turner, John Hawkes, Donna Murphy, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Norbert Leo Butz, Barbara Tuttle, Ebon Moss-Bachrach & Michael Chernus

From the opening chapter “Summers,” the girlhood of young Corinne (McKenzie Turner) is marked by people declaring what she is or isn’t, or what she can and can’t do. When a door-to-door salesman comes by with an accordion, her mother (Donna Murphy) insists “She’s not musical,” and a librarian refuses to lend her Lord of the Flies. However, at vacation bible school, the pastor (Bill Irwin) makes accepting Jesus into her life warmly appealing.

As a teenager, shy, poetic Corinne (Taissa Farmiga, the director’s sister, in a lovely debut) is flattered to draw the attention of Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), the long-haired lead of her high school’s rock band, first for her songwriting ability. She tries to convince the other girls she’s more than a groupie to him even before he knocks her up. Their trajectory seems straight out of Springsteen’s song “The River,” but this time from the point of view of the young woman. The band van’s plunge into a river, a traumatic near-death and symbolic baptism, catapults the young parents to reevaluate their lives. This leads them into a musical evangelical community and a joyous baptism in a river.

Looking like organic-farming hippies, but living like fundamentalists, the adult Corinne and Ethan (Vera Farmiga and Joshua Leonard) thrive lovingly for many years in intensely close-knit, ever stricter congregations. Corinne finds an intimate environment of supportive women within the rigid gender segregation, and a visit from her wild child sister, Wendy (Nina Arianda), who inherited their father’s propensity for drinking and drugs, embodies for Corinne the potential dangers lurking for her children outside the protective bounds of her faith. Yet she begins to feel sexually frustrated by the rules for pleasure (let alone the male-oriented marriage counseling, though her husband is always shown as earnestly well-meaning). She also chafes under the restrictions that come with the group’s Biblical interpretations. The more she reads the Bible, the more she wants to express her own opinions.

A repeating pattern in her life, from her mother’s experiences on, is the mystery and terror of childbirth that can cement or tear apart the parents’ relationship, make a woman celebrate or question the existence of God, or at least the universe’s plan. (It’s hard not to see the debut director’s own pregnancy during the filming as an influence.) Corinne is further rattled by the terrible health crisis faced by her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), which not only challenges her belief in faith healing but shakes her concept of the very meaning of the quality of life.

In Carolyn Briggs’s reworking of her memoir This Dark World, some details are left out from the biography that make on-screen transitions confusing. Unseen are how she and her young husband were actively recruited into the religious group by a high school friend, even into anti-abortion activism, and how attending classes at a community college affected her thinking. Some of the actual romance and culture clashes that could have seemed like formulaic external influences are hinted at in the film’s concluding chapter. However, the focus stays on her internal transformation through the spiritual maturity that gives her courage to change her life and reach Higher Ground, which has a surprising sympathy for faith-based feminism rarely seen in films. Nora Lee Mandel
September 10, 2011



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