As an actor, Vera Farmiga is known for deeply intelligent, emotionally complex performances in films like 'Up in the Air,' 'The Departed' and 'Down to the Bone.' In 'Higher Ground,' she uses her extraordinary talents to direct and star in a unique and bracingly honest narrative about one woman's spiritual crisis.
Corinne Miller (Farmiga), her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) and their children are part of a small community of fundamentalist Christians, but her faith is wavering. Corinne's search for meaning -- or at least belonging -- begins as a child in church camp when she raises her hand to be saved. As she gets older, religion takes a backseat to family problems and the long-haired rocker who soon becomes her husband. Corinne ends up pregnant and married to Ethan straight out of high school. She gives up her dreams of being a writer, and he gives up his dreams of being a rock star. Later, following a terrifying accident, they become deeply religious.
Their community is a strange mixture of hippie sensuality -- the men listen to tapes on how to pleasure their wives, for instance -- and good old religious sexism, which means Corinne has to be reprimanded for overstepping her proper bounds more than once. Small things like being chastised by one of her church sisters for the dress she's wearing begin to grate on her. Her yearning for closeness to God, it seems, has not been achieved either, as we see when Corinne attempts to channel the Holy Spirit so she might speak in tongues like her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). Corinne grows increasingly alienated from her husband and community and eventually has to decide whether to stick with what she's known her entire adult life or strike out on her own.
What's so clear and powerful about 'Higher Ground' and Farmiga's work is that it's entirely earnest but not humorless. When one "sister" twinkles that someone has brought carob cookies to their meeting, Corinne murmurs to Annika, "Do you know what carob tastes like? Disappointment." In another scene, Annika encourages Corinne to draw her husband's penis. Annika's bedroom walls, in fact, are covered with penis drawings and, eagle-eyed viewers might note, some vulvas too. It's a strange world, yes, but not necessarily the way outsiders might assume.
Farmiga's camera zeroes in on details -- a mother's water breaking, a child's finger tracing the tube leading to an IV in her mother's hand, the secret joy that Corinne finds in smelling a library book when she thinks no one is looking. She brings the same emotional insight to her direction as to her performance, without ever losing a sense of wonder.
Standout performances include Domincyzk, whose radical and tragic transformation is a major catalyst for Corinne's crisis, Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corinne's divorced parents, Nina Arianda as Corinne's wayward sister Wendy, and Farmiga's sister Taissa, who plays teenage Corinne uncannily.
'Higher Ground' is a standout film in a packed festival lineup, a fantastic directorial debut for a very talented artist.