HIGHER GROUND stakes out a choice plot of compassionate storytelling real estate in the remarkably assured 2011 directorial debut by actress Vera Farmiga. Beyond deft handling of a select cast and a graceful touch on delicate material, she also plays the lead, glowing in the best performance of her career so far (saying a lot, considering how good she always is, and how much we trust is awaiting).
Adapted by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe from Brigg’s memoir “This Dark World”, it covers twenty-six years in the life of ‘Corinne Walker’ (Farmiga) as she develops and reevaluates her religious philosophy, challenging both family and close-knit spiritual community as she grapples at a private relationship with God. If that sounds like a yawn, don’t be shy (or prejudiced: I confess an aversion to ‘faith-grapple movies’ in general) as this is thoughtful, fair-minded, funny and touching throughout its 109 minutes; it doesn’t presume destination or stoop to mocking so neither skeptics nor believers need be offended (well, you’d think).
Done on a scratch budget of $1,800,000, despite laudatory reviews it brushed but a tiny $844,000, a real sin against quality. Great cast: Taissa Farmiga (Vera’s sis) and McKenzie Turner as younger versions of Corinne; Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, John Hawkes, Dagmara Domincyzk, Bill Irwin and Donna Murphy.
This stumbling sinner is not rushing off to a pew, but I hail Farmiga’s winning sermon on the wonder and mystery of hope (and maybe the crucial curse of curiosity?). As the nondenominational Christian actress-director puts it: “…of utmost importance and innate in me is the yearning to determine for myself – to define God, to define holiness for myself…I don’t belong to any particular church, but I’m someone who will be able to walk into any place of worship, any house of worship, and have a direct correspondence.” Amen, Sister Vera.