Higher Ground is a rare thing, a religious-themed movie in which faith is neither blindly preached nor vehemently condemned. The film is genuinely curious about the nature of belief, while also wary of the way religion can harm. It’s skeptical and yearning at the same time.
A confident directorial debut by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), Higher Ground also stars Farmiga as Corinne, a young woman who has wrestled with faith all her life. Corinne “asks Jesus into her heart” as a little girl at vacation Bible school, later drifts away from that commitment in adolescence, then comes to embrace it again as a young mother in the 1970s, where the majority of the film takes place. When brokenness and pain come her way – a friend’s debilitating illness, a struggling marriage, temptation – chinks in her faith begin to appear, until Corinne questions what it is she truly believes.
Higher Ground throws darts when it should. A sexist Christian marriage counselor is rightly depicted as a menace, while some of the movie’s few laughs can be found during a scene in which a group of men gather to listen to an audiotape series about “Christ-like sex.”
And yet, in other scenes, there is a true sense of awe at the wonders faith can work. Struck by a sudden, terrifying illness, Corinne’s closest friend (Dagmara Dominczyk) says from her hospital bed: “I feel him. God is here.” Because Farmiga has taken the time to develop even the supporting characters into fully realized human beings – rather than walking testimonials – we can feel this faith too.
While Farmiga’s visual style is fairly conventional, her intellectual curiosity is often startling. Parallel to Corinne’s faith development, Higher Ground also traces her sexual journey, from adolescence – when boys would fawn over her older sister – through motherhood and marriage (when desire occasionally pushes back against the Bible’s strictures). Pairing these narrative strands, the movie suggests that no two things are as mysterious and bewildering as faith and sex.
As you would expect from an honest, agenda-less film such as this, Higher Ground ends on a note of ambivalence. If that’s frustrating in terms of narrative, it’s also exactly what makes the movie so precious. Rare is the religious-themed film that refuses to either vilify or convert.