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Higher Ground - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Higher Ground
Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A
Music: A

Truly objective movies about religious faith are tough -- they're both tough to make and a tough sell. As someone with no religious faith at all, I have no idea how devoted Christians might react to Higher Ground; it's not so much controversial as it simply refuses to supply simple answers for its characters. On the flip side, to the secular audience, its lack of judgment toward its characters is both striking and refreshing.

Suffice it to say that Higher Ground is not a Message Movie. You don't walk away from it feeling like you've been told to go to church or not to go to church. You simply witness the process of faith that Corinne (Vera Farmiga) goes through. It's a faith that she gains and loses.

That is the essence of the story here, and it spans Corinne's life from childhood -- which means two younger actors playing the same character. Both of them, McKenzie Turner as little-girl Corinne and Taissa Farmiga as young-adult Corinne, are impeccably cast, Taissa being especially convincing as she's actually Vera's younger sister. The family resemblance is very evident.

Corinne gets "saved" in her local church as a little girl, then sort of forgets about it for several years. She ends up getting married young, her pregnant belly bulging out of her wedding dress. Her musician boyfriend turns to construction work but keeps going to band gigs for a while. When they have a close-call with a crash on their tour bus, they take it as a sign from God.

Vera Formiga here directs for the first time as well as starring, and she proves remarkably adept. Most of the scenes come and go with relative subtlety but with a lot of information. Corinne's family and friends run the gamut from non-believers to, as one of her neighbors puts it, "religious nuts." Corinne wants to serve God, but battles a lifetime of tests of her faith. Not any one thing would be sure to shake a person's faith (though a permanently-altering seizure suffered by her best friend comes close), but little by little, Corinne comes to the realization that she doesn't actually "feel Jesus in her heart," and maybe she never did.

Sexism in the church is a pervading theme. When she tries to testify in church, she's "gently" cut down for getting preachy -- by another woman. When she steps back from the church, she's regarded as a lost soul bound for hell.

To Famiga's credit, Higher Ground avoids any and all of the traps that come with portraying devout characters. There are no melodramatic ultimatums here, no hateful pronouncements of fire and brimstone. Corinne isn't exactly declared a heathen. The interactions are typically much more subtle than that, and actually much more representative of the way many church going folks behave in the real world. Indeed, even many of the most pious characters are genuinely likable. You really want them to be able to find some way to be happy.

Corinne seems to be the only person actively working toward that as a goal, but that doesn't make anyone around her any less sincere. That sincerity is really the key here; it's what makes you care about them. Sure, sometimes they're a bit naive, but who isn't? There's a scene where Corinne and her friends and family are waiting in a hospital hallway, and their form of offering support is to sing hymns. And you can't help but be touched by it.

In fact, the music in particular bears mentioning. It's all hymnal in nature, and it's all not only truly lovely, but each song is perfectly apropos for the scene in which it's used. Rarely is music so skillfully and efficiently used in film. Much of it genuinely feels inspirational. And it's not just used as a soundtrack; nearly every song is sung by the characters in either a church or a church group type of setting.

Higher Ground is a richly textured portrait of tested faith, and it subtly bucks cinematic convention throughout. This is not a movie that's like other movies. It carefully avoids extremes on either end of the spectrum, which is precisely how it should be when regular, everyday people of faith are portrayed. Corinne's journey is one that plenty of people of probably all religious persuasions can relate to -- but the same could be said of what the people who know her are going through.

Some might wonder what the point is, exactly, but the way I see it, its vagueness is the point. Not even the Bible is as straightforward as some would have you believe.

Dagmara Dominczyk (L) and Vera Farmiga try to raise their spirits in 'Higher Ground'.

Overall: A-
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