I had lunch with a friend of mine this summer and she said something particularly profound. When talking about her history of playing lacrosse she realized, “It was the greatest decision of my life to join and then it was the greatest decision to leave.”
The main character in “Higher Ground” is stuck in the middle of those decisions. As a child, Corrine was curious about religious but never understood it. She raised her hand to accept Jesus; she was wide-eyed like she was an impersonal viewer instead of participating an epiphany. Her casual nature changed when she was in a terrifying accident as a teenager. Her husband survived alongside her with God as their saving force.
As an adult Corrine is Vera Farmiga, who wears a director’s hat in addition to starring in this movie. Handling religion, especially in a modern context. Elements of every religion have been deemed outdated or ridiculous by a more cynical mainstream perspective. To watch someone partake in a deeply personal experience that defies rational thinking usually creates a distance with the audience.
As a filmmaker, Farmiga could ease the pains of her characters. “Higher Ground” is partly based off Carolyn S. Brigg’s memoirs but there are enough differentiations to make this its own story. Farmiga could have God displayed in a tangible form to remove the doubt and confusion from her characters. Instead it is a conscious choice to let them fend for themselves.
In some ways the lifestyle of Corrine and her family are ideal. She has a wonderful best friend who also finds comfort in scripture. She has wonderful children and a church she can rely on. In a world that is supposed provide you with inner peace, Corrine is left cold. Her marriage isn’t centered around love and certain rules of the church end up being cruel.
One of the most effective tools Farmiga used was a great passage of time. This story is years of Corrine’s life but it never feels crunched. Since it is an emotional journey, there aren’t dozens of essential plot points that need to be covered. The film can be formed with “unimportant” scenes between the characters. Their day-to-day actions speak volumes about who they are and their faith.
Not every scene is gold. There are a few near the end that are visually rewarding but are too obvious with its metaphors. No matter the content of the scenes, the actors are given room to live in the moments. Farmiga, in particular, is able to handle the complexities of trying to figure out what the character wants in life. Seeing her with her friend, played by Dagmara Dominczyk, end up being some of the strongest parts of the movie because of the contrary confidence.
“Higher Ground” is a difficult movie without the typical emotional payoffs. That will turn some people off, but this isn’t about telling the whole story of Corrine Walker. Just a very significant and fascinating part.