I've been on something of a lucky streak with moviegoing lately, mostly because I've been avoiding most of the big budget mainstream films in favr of the smaller gems. Among the other reasons for being missing in action is because this past week was pretty much an indie film festival.
And I have to start wit what is probably the most remarkable and,in its way, ambitious: Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground.
Vera Farmiga is one of the go-to actresses, right now, for wife and girlfriend roles in big budget films. She was nominated for Up in the Air (playing Clooney's love interest), had a big role in The Departed, that sort of thing. Perhaps that's why nothing quite prepared me for the impressiveness of her directorial debut in a small, deeply felt film about faith and finding your way. What's more astonishing is that while the directorial debut is assured, Farmiga's performance in the lead role is also brilliantly realized.
Based on the memoir of writer Carolyn Briggs, Higher Ground is the story of a woman who finds God at a young age. Corinne raises her hand in Sunday school when almost no one else does, and finds herself on a long journey into an intense Christianity. As a teen she starts a romance with a young rebellious singer songwriter in a teenage band, and they wind up married after she gets pregnant. A reckless, near death experience for them and the baby drives the family even deeper into bible study and church.
HIgher Ground is remarkable in many ways, not least because it charts a kind of Christian intensity that is worlds away from southern, born again Baptist gospel. Taking place in upstate New York, Higher Ground is populated with hippie men and Earth mother types who place a great value on their journey in faith. Agree or disagree, but the window into these lives, which are probably unseen by many, is fascinating.
Corinne's adult life is up-ended when her closest friend, Annika, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and comes out of surgery with significant brain damage. Lost, adrift in a faith that cannot answer her deepest prayer, Corinne discovers that she's grown apart from her husband, and her faith. With considerable strong personal resolve, she sets out on her journey, breaking away from her marriage and her church, and, ultimately, everything familiar in the life she's lived.
The film handles all of this with a delicate sensitivity and respect for everyone in it. These are not easy caricatures of intolerant Christians, the women are not saints and the men are not simply insensitive boors. Farmiga's performance as Corinne is fully realized and three dimensional - her choices at every step make sense for her character, even if those choices can seem frustrating. This is a good, decent person who cares deeply about what it means to be good and decent. To everyone.
Farmiga is surrounded by a talented cast who also bring incredible levels of depth to their roles. That's particularly true of Dagmara Dominczyck as Annika and Donna Murphy as Corinne's salty, independently minded mother... but pretty much every role here is pitch perfect. All of which convinces me that Farmiga is an especially sensitive director in dealing with her actors, a real accomplishment.
But the point here is that Farmiga's work as a director shines on many levels. Visually, the film is striking and often stunningly beautiful. Among other things, the film is a visual love letter to the simple pleasures of life in upstate New York. The settings are so believably rendered, I both felt I knew these people and longed for a moment to return to life up there. Farmiga also captures, as few directors do these days, the realities of working class life just now - this is one of the most believable portraints of working and middle class people I've seen, simple, direct, and respectful.
Higher Ground isn't a film meant to convince us, any of us, that it knows the answers when it comes to faith any more than the rest of us. Farmiga's final, brilliant speech as Corinne gets at the struggle to live a life in the real world carried by a faith that cannot always provide all the answers, what it is to live a life with doubts. That Corinne gives this speech to the congregation she's leaving, without telling them off or denying the strength of their faith is amazing. But then, so is this entire film. I highly recommend it.