The most shocking thing about actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, which is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ 2002 memoir, is its normalcy. Set within a tight-knit group of Evangelical Christians during the late 70s and early 80s, it’s a movie that takes religion as a fact of everyday life. These aren’t people we normally see on screen in American films, where faith is typically either a target for mockery, or a recruiting tool. Church is at the center of these folks’ lives, and Farmiga doesn’t have any interest in passing judgment on them for it.
The screenplay, written by Briggs and co-scribe Tim Metcalf, is a quiet, sometimes shaggy tale of yearning. Farmiga stars as Corrine, a middle-class housewife who, after getting knocked up as a teenager, settles into a quiet, unassuming suburban life with husband Ethan (Joshua Miller,) a couple of kids and some increasingly diminished expectations. Higher Ground takes great interest in the facts of day-to-day life and the close bonds within this community, it’s got an unassuming pace and careful attention to detail that at first seems to be headed nowhere in no particular hurry.
But there’s a nagging dissatisfaction lurking in the corners of Corrine’s simple life, rendered mostly by Farmiga’s sublime performance. There aren’t a lot of tearful speeches and no voice-over providing a key to her inner tumult, just a few pregnant pauses and a faraway look in her eyes that gradually accumulates power as the picture wears on. This insular world, which at first seemed so welcoming and supportive, slowly begins to feel constricted. Something as simple as a trip to the library eventually bristles with possibility, as Corrine begins to ache for a life beyond the choir.
How do you dramatize doubt? That’s Higher Ground’s main virtue and also something of a flaw, and I don’t know how it would work at all if Farmiga were not one of the most effortlessly expressive actresses working in films right now. So much of the movie is us watching her watch other people. The picture never settles for easy answers, and these warmly drawn characters are granted a surprising complexity. Corrine’s crisis of faith is also one of envy. She longs for the same certainty that seems to bring so much comfort and purpose to her fellow church-goers, but for some folks faith just isn’t enough.
Like I said, shocking.