Higher Ground Directed by: Vera Farmiga Cast: Vera Farmiga, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Joshua Leonard Running Time: 1 hr 49 mins Rating: R Release Date: September 2, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: The story of a woman’s (Farmiga) spiritual life as she experiences a difficult marriage and life-changing relationships with those around her.
WHO'S IT FOR?: It’s a movie that can’t handle firm naysayers on either side of the discussion. Farmiga is yearning for our open mind, and then tries to stimulate it as much as possible.
The directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga is bound to earn some respect for the way in which it treats others – while she might be working with a heavy subject, she is not aiming to condemn anyone. Her infiltration into the lives of the members of a hardcore religious community is not out pass its own judgment. While we might see a slew of films in recent years that take aggressive stances towards this subject, Farmiga’s Higher Ground is a film that will stand out simply because it’s neutral.
With this lack of attack or immediate embrace of religion, Farmiga puts us in a more contemplative mood than a critical one. How does a certain event make us feel? For example, is a visit to a religiously motivated marriage counselor a manipulative experience, or something one could actually find great help from? Should we turn to a higher being for advice, or are matters of the heart something for only two people? Again, this movie is for both sides, so long as they have an open mind.
One can only ask so many questions, and ponder out loud so much, until it becomes a bit draining. Higher Ground’s meditation-like presence doesn’t lend well to the movie’s speed, which can sometimes feel like you’ve been in the theater for hours. Its uncertain plot path has a start and end point, but a very hazy in between. It’s the kind of movie that can distract you by your repeated thoughts of “Where is this going?”
Carrying the weight of Higher Ground is Farmiga, who gives a nuanced performance that makes for the center of this story’s inquiries. Working alongside her is a notable appearance from the always-impressive John Hawkes, who plays a quieter role as Corinne's father, and whose potent ability for silence makes for the movie’s best scene involving a birthday cake and intersecting futures.
Farmiga’s film covers a lot of ground also in a visual sense, as it moves through the three decades of a woman’s life. While we may not be certain as to what year it is during most moments in the movie, we can estimate as to what the era might be thanks to the movie’s acute costume design and mindful art direction.
Non visually speaking, Higher Ground’s restrained score, as driven by melodic finger-picked guitars, is a nice plus to the experience (Farmiga doesn’t bring us to an aural church with a slew of hymns).
Higher Ground is all about the contemplation post sermon, than the actual sermon itself. While the winding film might or not inspire deep thought about its subject, we can certainly find solace in a solid movie about religion that doesn’t want to be preachy.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10