One woman’s struggle to abide by religious dogma in 1970s America forms the basis of Higher Ground, the directorial debut for Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), who also stars in this film as Corinne. The character of Corinne is based on Carolyn Briggs, whose memoir, This Dark World, was the inspiration for the film, and who also co-wrote the screenplay.
After an accident nearly causes the death of their infant daughter, Corinne and her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project), turn to God. Years of devout worship begin to unravel, however, when the world she inhabits begins to suffocate her and she is forced to question her beliefs.
Spanning generations and working with subject matter that even seasoned professionals would find prickly, Farmiga does a thoroughly adept job. It’s a particularly pertinent time for this film to be made for, much like Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men from earlier in the year, it shows how a devotion to God and blind, humourless, hate-filled fanaticism are not one and the same. Corinne’s transformation here is so nicely, gently observed by Farmiga and should be essential viewing for anybody who thinks a belief in God is a free pass to righteous judgment of others. Corinne emerges as the better woman, despite being a hell-bound one in the eyes of the world she dedicated her life to.
It’s a visually striking film, too. As if filmed through a thin veil of delicate lace, Michael McDonough’s cinematography saturates this religious commune in a glow that renders black (the colour of evil) into a less threatening palate of charcoal and grey. Much care has obviously been put into the authenticity of the film from the precise production design to the songs that pepper the soundtrack. Particular praise must go to Amela Baksic’s costume design, which adds to the effortless aura of another time and place. Many vintage thrift stores were surely raided to fill out the film’s wardrobe of frilly laced dresses made of pastels and floral patterns, dowdy hippie outfits and Farmiga’s ever-expanding closet of attractive clothes expressing her growing independence.
This is obviously a far more grounded exploration of the topic than this year’s other films about religious oppression, Red State and Footloose, and would make an ace double feature with Sean Durkin’s upcoming Martha Marcy May Marlene with their duelling tales of disengagement of rigid cult-like communities. Farmiga’s performance is typically fine, but supporting work by Donna Murphy (Tangled), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Dagmara Dominczyk (Running with Scissors) and Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris) are even better. Thoughtful and only somewhat let down by an episodic screenplay, Higher Ground is a fantastic debut for Farmiga.
Higher Ground was released in Australia on October 6th
Director: Vega Farmiga
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Donna Muprhy, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Nina Arianda, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook & Ebon Moss-Bachrach