Daring to tackle a subject that seems to be ever harder for even a small Hollywood film to cover as each day passes, Higher Ground paints a heartfelt and honest picture of one woman’s journey in and through and eventually out of the Christian faith.
Corinne (Vera Farmiga) is a young girl at what appears to be some sort of Bible vacation school. The pastor presses the young children in front of him for a decision to invite Jesus into their hearts. It’s a tactic that would likely make Charles Finney beam in pride and John Calvin weep. After surveying the kids around her, Corinne raises her hand in response to the pastor’s plea. Thus begins Corinne’s journey of faith.
Higher Ground is a rare film that doesn’t attempt to belittle the Christian faith nor does it try to gloss over the sins and peculiarities of those who hold to that faith. In place of cynicism we get a view of Corinne’s life and the impact Christianity has had. As a teen, Corinne is the quiet writer contrasted with her sister who is more of the wild child. Somewhat surprisingly, Corinne falls for a wannabe rock star, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), and soon after gets pregnant then married. Their life is one of instability, as Ethan pursues his rock n’ roll dream while Corinne attempts to care for their child. All that changes once the two are in an accident that lands the band’s van in a lake. Mom, dad and baby all make it out alive. Ethan determines this is a miracle from God and begins digging into the Bible. It’s not long before Ethan and Corinne are baptized in a river. Enter the Jesus people stage, one filled with church service in the outdoors, a charismatic twinged faith, and lots of groovy clothes. Again, this seems to be a fairly accurate portrayal of this movement within the Christian faith at the time.
The movie makes a misstep when it attempts to add humor with the Christian married couples’ attempts at grappling with sex in their marriages. Where most of the movie has an authentic feel, these scenes feel like cheats for laughs. They come dangerously close to not laughing at the situations but laughing at those in the situations.
Almost as important to her as her faith in Jesus is Corinne’s friendship with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), an adventurous soul who fascinates Corinne. The two friends share a number of memorable moments together as they both learn more about life, faith, and how the two intersect.
A heartbreaking turn of events happens that tests Corinne’s faith. It is at this point in the film we see a clear divergence between Corinne and the rest of her church, including her husband and kids. Corinne finds less and less comfort in a sovereign God who allows terrible things to happen to seemingly good people. This spiral of doubt and sorrow leads to Corinne’s falling out of her faith and marriage. It’s at this point I fully expected the film to teach us how Corinne finds true fulfillment at last as a woman freed from the bondage of Christianity. Instead, we get a glimpse of one who feels free to do what she pleases yet finds little joy. She discovers the allure of greener pastures can often be a mirage.
There is a scene towards the end of the film where Corinne reconnects, if only for a brief moment, with her ex-husband around the kitchen table in celebration of their child’s birthday. It’s not a big scene with sweeping music which makes it even more impactful.
The film’s ending falls into a bit of a trap by making it crystal clear where Corinne is at in relation to her faith. Instead of letting viewers grasp that this is a near middle aged woman with likely many more years left to live and more story to play out, we’re left with a stump speech of sorts. Christian films, those that often are made to evangelize, get raked over the coals for using this often clumsy technique and Higher Ground is not immune to the critique. The difference being that instead of preaching a message, Corinne tells us where she is at in terms of faith in God. It leaves an overall solid film on an off note.
Vera Farmiga succeeds in not only carrying the load of this film based on real life memoirs of Carolyn S. Briggs, she also directed it as a first time effort behind the camera. I admire her attempt to tackle a subject that is not a popular one in her circles and generally handling it with great care, never taking the easy route of cynically portraying her characters while also not hiding their struggles and faults.