Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, HIGHER GROUND, depicts the landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off-kilter when one of their own begins to question her faith. Inspired by screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World, the film tells the story of a thoughtful woman’s struggles with belief, love, and trust—in human relationships as well as in God.
As a young girl growing up on a Midwest farm, Corinne (McKENZIE TURNER) experiences both the warmth of a loving family and the unease of a household frayed by conflict. Her father CW (JOHN HAWKES)—wiry and funny—and her mother Kathleen (DONNA MURPHY)—beautiful and very pregnant—clearly love each other. But when Kathleen’s baby dies at birth, her grief turns to sour discontentment, and CW turns to angry drinking. Corinne and her younger sister Wendy (TAYLOR SCHWENCKE) witness the marriage as it
Religion makes its first imprint on Corinne at Vacation Bible School, where Corinne is moved (perhaps more by a spirit of experimentation than by the Holy Spirit) to proclaim herself Saved. Pastor Bud (BILL IRWIN) seems to be equally moved by the sight of Corinne’s mother in shorts and a low-cut top.
As the years pass, teenaged Corinne (TAISSA FARMIGA) becomes a high school poet, while Wendy (KAITLYN RAE KING) becomes a track star. Quiet and self-contained though she is, Corinne captures the interest of Ethan (BOYD HOLBROOK), the handsome front man of the school rock band, The Renegades. From writing songs together to making love, the two are a soul match, and soon Corinne finds herself in a maternity wedding dress, with Baby Abby arriving shortly after. The newlyweds struggle with their radically altered fates: would-be writer Corinne cares for Abby while would-be rock star Ethan literally splits rocks as a stone worker. Their shared love for Abby helps their bond persevere.
One night, driving the Renegades band bus to a gig with Corinne and Abby on board, Ethan swerves off the road, and tragedy is narrowly averted. In the aftermath of the close call, Ethan and Corinne feel that God has saved them, and is calling on them to change their lives. They find their way to a religious community of evangelical Christians, a small, intimate church group whose worship seems joyous and open-hearted. As comfortable praying in nature as inside a church, the community, with their long-haired men and peasant-bloused women, has a welcoming, unconventional vibe. Adult Corinne (VERA FARMIGA) and Ethan (JOSHUA LEONARD) embrace the loving new family their community provides.
For Corinne, her close friendship with Annika (DAGMARA DOMINCZYK) opens her up to a whole new way of being in the world. Rapturous about Jesus, Annika is also wholeheartedly alive to earthly delights; striking, sexy, brash and passionate, Annika is equally at ease talking about carnality and conversing in tongues with the Holy Spirit.
But for all the seeming openness of the church, Corinne rubs up against strictures: when she stands up in church to talk about her spiritual insights, she is gently but firmly rebuked for
“coming dangerously close to preaching” – the woman’s place is to hold back and leave the teachings to the men. When she wears a dress that draws a church brother’s compliment, she is told to be careful not to tempt the menfolk. Throughout the years and two more babies, Annika is Corinne’s confidante and fellow spirit, while Ethan seems to relate to her more through the orthodoxy of church teachings.
The Christian zeal that permeates every moment of Corinne and Ethan’s life is uncomfortable for Corinne’s divorced parents and feckless sister Wendy, whose life has gone a bit off the rails into bad relationships and druggie associates. Nevertheless, they all make efforts in their own ways to maintain the connection; Corinne’s little daughter wonders aloud how they can be such kind and loving people without having been saved by Jesus.
While these everyday frictions wear away at Corinne’s devotion, a tragedy deeply undermines her faith. Annika is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor; though she survives surgery, she is left mute and curled within herself in a wheelchair, wearing a grimace that could be pain and despair or merely neurological after-effects. It’s impossible for Corinne to know if the Annika she loves is still trapped within her wracked body or gone forever. The church community’s prayers and thanks for Annika’s survival ring hollow to Corinne.
As she withdraws from her faith, Corinne withdraws from Ethan, as well. Conflicts that could be seen as average marital discontentment are magnified by the church’s doctrine of wifely subservience. Ethan explodes in rage at Corinne’s show of independence. A Christian marriage counselor intones darkly that Corinne is “worshipping at the altar of yourself.” And when Corinne leaves the marriage and the home, she is cut off and shut out by the church community.
Still, the possibility of compassionate grace and forgiveness survives in Corinne. She visits the church and speaks eloquently about her loss of faith and her envy of their certainty. She is still the loving mother, daughter, and sister. And she reaches across the rift in her marriage to show Ethan her love if not reconciliation.
Faith, love and honesty are the cornerstones of this story of a woman who learns that no matter how many times she loses her footing, she has within herself all that’s necessary to get to a higher place.
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