CW, Kathleen, Corinne and Wendy are the typical family, maybe even better; they’re goofy with each other, mom & dad are still sexy crazy for each other, with a closeness that you just don’t see every day. Then tragedy strikes, and the shockwaves send young Corinne to a wild life, and then to salvation with a capital S. But who’s salvation has she found, and how does one keep a hold of his or her faith in an oppressive society? Higher Ground takes a look at fundamentalist Christianity and it’s growing pains, paralleling the changes in that belief system with the changes the Baby Boom generation went through. It’s a powerful film that has at it’s center a strong willed woman of deep faith, a unicorn in today’s overbearing, male-centered church. That Higher Ground manages to simultaneously convey Corinne’s deep respect and love for her faith and with the troubling changes certain segments of the Protestant religion has undergone in the past several decades is a stunning achievement, especially for first-time director Vera Farmiga.
Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost (which has now been re-printed under the title Higher Ground), Higher Ground follows Corinne (Vera Farmiga; Up in the Air) from a young girl who sees going to church as just something to do, to a rebellious teen pregnant and hurriedly married and then to a woman who has put all her trust and hope in God. But as the decades change, the groovy veggie hippies for Christ she joined as a teenager slowly become more dogmatic. Adding to her troubles is a husband (played by Joshua Leonard of The Blair Witch Project) who sees no problem with the way their church has changed, and a sister and mother who have shed their earlier beliefs. The film takes these characters from the personal, sexual and spiritual freedom of the 1960s, all Jesus Christ Superstar and tofu patties, to the close-minded demagoguery of 1980s “spirituality”. As Corinne passes through the years, she must make a decision to stay with her faith, or to find her own way to be in the world. “Lord, it’s either inside with you, or outside with the dogs”, one church member says early on, a softly worded threat that anyone doing, saying or feeling anything different from those of the church would burn in H-E-double-hockey-sticks. With all that fear of damnation thundering on a person 24-7, is it any wonder so many fundamentalists are batshit?
The character of Corinne is a refreshing change from all the half-crazed Bible-Belters that have become clichÃ© over the years. Here is a woman with strong beliefs that is also open minded and loving. In my mind every single hyper-judgemental fundamentalist should be tied down and forced to watch this movie, if only to show them how they should really be living. Then again they probably wouldn’t get it. Farmiga pulls off the double duty of director/lead actress admirably, giving a nuanced performance that may well be overlooked by the Academy for it’s low-key style. Which would be a shame, but we all know the Academy loves histrionics. Dagmara Dominczyk (Kinsey) plays Corinne’s best friend Annika, a woman who sees God in everything, even in the drawings she makes of her husband’s penis. “Christ-like sex!”, she exclaims, as the women collapse into giggles. Meanwhile, Joshua Leonard as Corinne’s husband Ethan is sort of the Everyman of the Fundamentalist movement, and how he goes from a pot-smoking hippie to a crunchy believer to a flat-out shunning “Christian” is probably scarier than anything the horror genre will whip out at moviegoers this year. It’s a sneaky, moment-by-moment change, and to see him become someone entirely different through Corinne’s eyes is heartbreaking and horrifying.
Higher Ground takes a look at many of the problems destructively fundamentalist movements have; blatant sexism, brainwashing, clannish/cultish behavior, and shows you how they’re used to keep the flock in line. It seems all are not equal in His sight. Have a gift of preaching? Well, if you’re a woman that’s out. (I hope nobody’s told Joyce Meyer.) Wanna read Lord of the Flies? Fuggetaboutit. Piece by piece we see the negativity of their fundamentalism, a stark contrast to Corinne’s all-accepting faith. She is a segment of the population that goes unnoticed; the open, accepting person of any faith. Hey, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the judgemental self-righteous saved of any religious denomination makes better press, right? Absolutely.
Corinne’s struggles to reclaim the faith she feels she’s lost leads her to therapy (faith-based of course), crushing on the hot mailman, and finally acceptance. Her faith is a part of who she is, not the sum of everything she is. That’s gotta be a difficult message for any extremist to swallow, but it makes for amazing filmmaking for those open to it’s message. Higher Ground is a lot like Corinne’s faith, a quiet thing that is no less powerful for the lack of bells and whistles.