“Higher Ground”

I saw a lovely, lovely movie tonight with my dear friend L. We’ve been meaning to see it for what seems like months, along with two of our other close friends, but schedules (and my illness) didn’t cooperate. Finally, we sucked it up and made a date.

The movie, Higher Ground, was directed by Vera Farmiga, one of my favorite underrated film actors. She’s been around a while, and when she first broke out in the indie movie scene, everyone predicted she’d be the next big movie star. She’s stayed underground and underrated, thought, while continuing to make marvelous (though often depressing) movies, as well as a few blockbusters, like Up In The Air with George Clooney.

Basically, Higher Ground is the story of one curious, thoughtful woman’s lifelong struggle with finding her faith. Corinne (Farmiga) experiences religion first as a child, and though brought up in a somewhat non-religious home, something
about it touches her. It’s never articulated what quite resonates, but we see the thoughtful child morph into a thoughtful young woman (played by Farmiga’s sister, Taissa Farmiga). She falls in love with a young man, a musician, and their relationship is true and sweet, yet not without difficulty. Their love, truly the cornerstone of the film, lasts through marriage, through a terrifying near-disaster that knocks him towards a new faith, through their three children, and yet it too is changing and complex. Corinne and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) clearly love each other, but they are both human, and both have needs and desires and differences, the compassionate negotiation of these differences gives the film an underlying goodness and tenderness that is unique.

While the main focus is her interactions with organized faith, from her childhood pastor telling her Jesus is knocking on her door (“tap tap tap”), to her husband’s conversion to a more fundamentalist, almost Baptist-like worship, it’s less about religion than it is about finding something solid, something real. Higher Ground doesn’t pit one faith against another, doesn’t take a stance on whether certain actions are right or wrong, doesn’t give us pure and unclouded notions about anything at all.

Nina Arianda, who is being positioned as the next big star on stage (and certainly has shown herself in a number of films this year too) is wonderfully funny and different as Corinne’s sister, Wendy. She has a self-entitled “fucked up life,” but we see her love for her family, and her ultimately good intentions, and her sadness when they fail. Another stage actor with great resonance onscreen is Norbert Leo Butz as Pastor Bill. There is much about the religion Butz’s character espouses that goes against most people’s beliefs, I’m sure, but he’s played with compassion and gentleness. He may not be right, but he honestly wants to provide happiness and support to his parishioners, Corinne and Ethan included.

The most powerful relationship in the film is between Corinne and her friend Annika, played by Dagmara Dominczyk (who I

actually also saw onstage, and is Patrick Wilson’s wife, lucky dog). Annika is another member of Corinne’s church, but the two connect as they each try to find their own paths towards truth and happiness. The honest, beautiful friendship between the two women gives them both strength and understanding– they are a refuge for each other. It is the subtle, tragic loss of that mutual refuge that propels Corinne to once again re-examine her search for the real.

All of these many characters are three-dimensional, compassionate, and likeable. There are no “bad guys,” no cliched relationships or conflicts. One of the most powerful moments in Higher Ground is late in the film when Corinne’s estranged parents’ eyes meet over a table at a birthday party (they’re played by two wonderful actors, Donna Murphy and John Hawkes). It’s a brief and pure moment, and tells you more about the complex shifts of their love than any line or exposition could.

Higher Ground is a gentle, subtle film that never once tells you what to think. It embraces the complexity of humanity and the constant, often frustrating search for something that is constant and clear– for some “higher ground” that we can stand on. We may never find it, but isn’t that the ultimate journey of humanity? Isn’t that search what it means to be human?

In other words, it’s a great film. I highly recommend going with a dear friend and with your heart very open.


“Look, I’m a thoughtful seeker — struggler — like we all are… Being genuine, that’s the only way to change things about any relationship. [Corinne is] looking for that within … the human relationships in her life, with her husband, with her sister, with her mom, with her children… It’s rare to encounter really, fully dimensionalized portrayals of women as I know women to be. I want to see women relating to each other more in the ways that have been very helpful and integral in my life. When I look at female characters, I want to recognize myself in them: my trials, my tribulations as a mother, as a lover, as a daughter. I want to see the things that I struggle with. … I want to see the murky stuff.”
— Vera Farmiga, about Higher Ground

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