MOVIE REVIEW: Higher Ground
Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes & Dagmara Dominczyk
Vera Farmiga is one of America’s finest actors, transcending the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and George Clooney in scene-stealing supporting roles. Farmiga’s range stems from her ability to inhabit female characters deeply entrenched in male-dominated institutions, finding their power and vulnerability in the details of performance. Her characterizations invade hierarchical structures such as law enforcement (The Departed) and high-pressure sales (Up in the Air), creating women who exude a steady balance of wit, sassiness, and sensuality to subvert traditional gender roles. Considering her striking presence and demeanor, its not surprising Farmiga dominates sequence after sequence, relying on sly facial expressions and methodical physical tweaks to maneuver through a character’s arc. Femininity isn’t a lesson to be learned or a weapon to wield for Farmiga, but a genuine experience ripe for debate and consideration.
Farmiga’s directorial debut, the independent film Higher Ground, places her at the center of another male-driven institution: religion. As Corrine, a woman perplexed by the irreconcilable contradictions between Christianity and secularism in the 1970s, Farmiga finds yearning where many actresses would discover cookie-cutter madness or melodrama. Higher Ground charts Corrine’s relationship with God from the moment she’s “born again” as a child in Sunday school to her complex faith-based marriage decades later to Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a devout and unflinching Christian. The expected benchmarks of adulthood (children, love, responsibility) are complicated and deepened by Corrine’s ideological uncertainty. As a result, the film focuses on the mundane moments of life to reveal religious doubt as something personal and hidden. As more cracks begin to show, Corrine’s once blind dedication to her faith quietly turns sour over the years. In this sense,Higher Ground eventually becomes a slow moving train wreck, watching Corrine’s subtle collisions with religion and life take on darkly comic undertones.
While Higher Ground is obsessed by a number of contrasting spirits (fundamentalism, lust, secularism), Farmiga’s human centerpiece never becomes a clichéd servant to any one point of view. Unfortunately, her performance doesn't stop Higher Ground from becoming a meandering mess of a character study. The film stumbles through time without much drama to compliment the many small moments of reflection realized by the impassioned lead turn. Every character drifts aimlessly, then bounces off each other in heightened sequences of resentment and repression. A momentarily violent exchange in a station wagon between Ethan and Corrine nicely reflects this somber uneasiness. But Higher Ground’s pacing is consistently glacial, and Corrine’s friends and fellow churchgoers are often seen as unthinking nut-jobs and sexists unworthy of redemption. For a film dependent on human subtext, every dramatic beat feels written in stone. Ironically, Farmiga the performer often feels lost under the guidance of Farmiga the director.
Higher Ground praises the small decisions in life that defines our ideological perspective. One great example comes when Corrine and her secular friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), share a peaceful canoe ride across a lake, discussing the beautiful fluidity of faith. There’s a weight to their conversation that doesn’t translate beyond the specific scene. Farmiga doesn’t yet have the directorial vision to turn these wonderfully complex flashes into a fully realized narrative. So much of Corrine’s experience is trapped between a tortured sense of self-fulfillment and blind religious servitude, but her emotional angst feels fleeting, improvisational in ways that can’t be reconciled. Ultimately, Corrine remains a lost spirit letting the ideological winds blow her soul in multiple directions at once. Even though Higher Ground claims to find a semblance of ideological peace in the end, it's blatantly clear Farmiga still hasn’t figured out which way is up.
- Higher Ground opens September 2, 2011 at the Landmark Hillcrest in San Diego.