REVIEW: First-Time Director Vera Farmiga Seeks — and Finds —Higher Ground
Did you feel it? A few minutes after the earthquake that ran up the east coast Tuesday, the courtyard of my Brooklyn building rang with voices: This one jumped off of her shaking bed; that one, sadly, didn't feel a thing. It seemed more likely, as my equilibrium gave way, that my body was the source of the betrayal, not my surroundings. But then I'd never experienced an earthquake; I have always managed to sleep or daydream through them, retaining a sliver of doubt as comfort for being left out. If I didn't feel it, how real could it be?
Near the beginning of Higher Ground, Vera Farmiga's phlegmatic directorial debut, a group of 1960s Sunday schoolers are enjoined by their Pastor to welcome God into their hearts. Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin), so neutered and non-threatening he invites a higher suspicion, calls on the group of young kids to attune themselves to Jesus's arrival at the door: Can they feel it? Young Corinne (McKenzie Turner) decides that she can, but it's largely a whim, an impulse toward approval and acceptance. Religions -- and certainly lives of religious devotion -- have been built on less.
A jump in time takes us to Corinne as a teenager (the striking resemblance to the film's director and star makes you wish the word "ethereal" weren't so overused; she is played by her little sister, Taissa Farmiga), but not before we get a sense of the younger Corinne's keenly engaged relationship with the world. Whether observing the affection drain from her parents (John Hawkes and Donna Murphy) after a devastating miscarriage or suffering a twinge as Pastor Bud vibes on her madeover mom, it is clear that Corinne feels all sorts of things, weirdly and deeply. Farmiga closes in on moments that express mood and character so lightly and perceptively that you don't notice them gently -- sometimes too gently -- moving the story forward.
Watchful, arty Corinne is a contrast to her bounding blonde sister (played as a teenager by Kaitlyn Rae King and as an adult by Nina Arianda), but it is the former who attracts the attention of the local rock star, Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). Courtship, pregnancy, marriage and a near-fatal van accident follow in a series of indelibly observed vignettes. Farmiga, working with Winter's Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough, uses fantasy cutaways sparingly. Humor is more subtly embedded into Corinne's 30-year journey from being "saved" during Sunday school, born again twice more, struggling with doubt and disillusionment, and ultimately reckoning with a faith separate from the church and her community.
Ours is very much Corinne's perspective, and the narrative line, such as it is, is telegraphed along a string of Farmiga's extraordinarily translucent responses to a loving but rigid environment. The notion of Corrine as too smart for her surroundings is handled with typical effacement, so that her questioning nature, when it flickers and then finally detonates, lacks the cumulative force deeper, more precise characterization may have wrought. In its place there is a seductive ease to the moment-driven storytelling and an equalizing force to the clean, orienting compositions. Though we travel to the heart of the kind of proselytizing that makes people switch subway cars, every character in the small, rural New York community where Corinne and Ethan (later played along a convincing spectrum of passion by Humpday's Joshua Leonard) are raising their three children maintains their dignity, and therefore their plausibility. The adult Corinne is sincere in her desire to feel what seems to come so naturally to the others, especially her best friend, a mischievous brunette named Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) whose claustrophobic sensuality extends to an ability to speak in vaguely European tongues.
The fact that This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, the Carolyn S. Briggs memoir, has changed its title to match the film adaptation feels like a reflection of Higher Ground's tempering effect. Co-writers Briggs and Tim Metcalfe are careful to avoid words like "cult" and "fundamentalist"; they work to avoid easy judgments, but the smoothed edges of interiority make the context somewhat nebulous. It was a tough job, no doubt, in times as reactionary to discussions of faith and ideology as ours. Though it's not always clear what Corinne has gotten herself into, and how deep, Farmiga's embodiment of her as a seeker of solace in all of its forms -- a suggestible but hardly naïve convert -- focuses the story on its very human core.
Tying things up a little too neatly for my taste -- and my nerves -- the first voice I heard after leaving the Higher Ground screening and boarding a subway car packed shoulder to sternum was that of a preacher waving a burgundy leather-bound bible. He railed from Bloomingdales to Brooklyn: "You better get clear with God," he said, "because the worst is yet to come." It's tougher all the time to find a captive audience, especially in what he called "the city of Sodom and Gomorrah." He wasn't about to waste it. "You will pay for it one day," he said, referring to our assumed spiritual indolence. "You know what I'm talking about: The earthquake that's coming." A young woman turned to me with a look of contempt: How can he say such things here, in New York City; here, in this crowded subway? Our indifference provoked him: "I hope you don't say I'm crazy," he said. "The moment you talk about God, people say you're crazy." I had pulled out my notebook and was scribbling where I stood. A minute or so later, a man in plain clothes pushed in close to me and flashed a police badge between us. "Did that man touch you?" he asked.
No. He was a bigot and a zealot, but he didn't touch me, and he wasn't crazy. A half hour later, back at my desk, I did feel the earthquake, and the first thing I thought of, once I was sure I wasn't having a stroke, was Vera Farmiga's soulful, searching face.