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Higher Ground



Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, is a tale of a very devout woman's struggle with her faith in the midst of an evangelical community. Those who roll their eyes at the prospect of another cinematic swipe at religious folk should know that it's surprisingly respectful and keeps the cheap shots to a minimum. On the other hand, those who roll their eyes at the prospect of another disingenuous attempt to capitalize on the religious dollar should know that the film is mostly about the character's disillusionment and reawakening. Really, whatever your expectations, tone them down a bit; the film should have been called Middle Ground.

And that's the problem. Corinne's story begins in her childhood when she falls for longhaired, guitar-playing local golden god Ethan. (He's played by Humpday's Joshua Leonard as an adult and by Boyd Holbrook as a teen; she's played by Farmiga as an adult and the actress-director's uncannily identical younger sister, Taissa, as a teen.) She gets pregnant, and they get hitched. While touring with Ethan's band, they get into a horrific accident. Upon discovering that their young baby is OK, they suddenly — really, quite suddenly — become extremely devout Christians.

And away we go: The two join a somewhat cultish but kindly group of believers. Everybody smiles and speaks very softly. This being the late '60s/early '70s, they're not even all that hung-up on sexual repression. ("Clitoral stimulation is part of God's plan," the men are taught.)

Corinne occasionally likes to voice her views, and she's occasionally told that women shouldn't be so assertive. Sometimes she likes to show a bit of shoulder, and sometimes she's told that she dresses a bit too loosely. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The film was based on Caroline S. Briggs' memoir, and this particular crisis of faith is clearly meant to be a low, quietly simmering one. But that results in rather inert drama at best. Without a compelling sense of the protagonist's devotion, it's hard to feel much for her eventual disenchantment. Corinne and Ethan's initial plunge into religious dedication turns on a dime, and we never quite understand what faith provides them. The tone is mostly respectful, but the coming break with the church is a fait accompli for pretty much the entire movie: We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop — even though we've never really been shown the shoes.

The overall feeling we get from the film is not one of sadness, or even liberation, but rather a dull, arid pointlessness.

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