I don’t agree with most attacks on Hollywood by Christian fundamentalists, but there’s one criticism they’re right about: When it comes to portraying people of faith, Hollywood isn’t just disrespectful — it’s shamefully disinterested. Stepping up to the plate of righteousness is the vibrant (and, by her own description, secular liberal) actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air), who directed and stars in Higher Ground, a rich, sprawling, demystifying yet mysterious drama about the life, love, faith, and heartbreak of one woman who’s an evangelical Christian. Higher Ground insists on the deep normality of true believers, but it also portrays their belief as a choice that seeps into mundane moments of existence. The upbeat homiletic fervor of church spreads over to domestic chores, to picnics and parties, to innocent flirtation and not-so-innocent flirtation.
Farmiga plays Corinne, who opened her heart to Jesus as a young girl. In high school in the ’70s (where she’s played by Farmiga’s sister Taissa), Corinne dates a Peter Frampton-haired, aviator-framed student rock & roller, and once they’re married she is baptized into a tightly knit community of Christians. It’s like a sect of the Amish transplanted to the hippie suburbs, with rules and phrases and manners, a way of thinking, for every occasion. Corinne’s friend Annika (the magnetic Dagmara Dominczyk) is a free spirit who speaks in tongues and gives brazen bedroom advice. At moments, it’s all very Christian-sitcom nudge-nudge, but mostly it’s fascinating. Farmiga, working from a script by Carolyn Briggs and Tim Metcalfe (based on Briggs’ memoir), directs with visual elegance and a humane flow. She keeps us parsing the emotional psychology of characters like the preacher who’s a territorial office politician; the men’s-group leader with his Jesus-approved erotic-advice cassettes; and Corinne’s husband (Joshua Leonard), a laid-back man so piously controlled, and so deep-down angry about it, that he can’t give his wife what she needs.
The movie turns on a paradox. The men and women in Higher Ground have chosen a life in which God is comfort, a security blanket they carry around. Yet all the discomfort and pain of life leaks in anyway. Farmiga uses her Lady Madonna face to flood Corinne with beatific passion, even as she finds at times that she’s in a Stepford straitjacket. She makes Corinne a striver who gives herself over to Christianity yet chafes at it, too; supplication doesn’t sit well with her. Will evangelicals embrace Higher Ground? Maybe not. Some will say it’s too cartoonishly anthropological. On some level, they may be right. Yet Higher Ground breaks crucial, sacred ground in American moviemaking. B+