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What do you do when you want to believe in God but find doubts dogging your every step?
That's the question in Higher Ground, actress/director Vera Farmiga's adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost.
Higher Ground invites viewers into Corinne Walker's pilgrimage, first as a child in Vacation Bible School, then as a bookish teenager who falls in love with a would-be rock star, and finally as a wife and mother who grows disillusioned with her faith and marriage. We've only just met Corinne (who's perhaps 8) when her precociousness becomes apparent. At VBS, a zealous pastor urges the kids to accept Jesus, with "every head bowed and every eye closed," of course. But Corinne can't resist the temptation to check out what everyone else is doing. Jesus is "knocking at the door of your heart," the pastor preaches as she sneaks a peek. "He's not going to come barging into your heart without an invitation. … Don't leave Jesus out in the cold."
Tentatively, she raises her right hand, along with two other children (though not her rebellious older sister, Wendy). Afterward, the pastor counsels, "Don't be ashamed of Jesus, children, and He won't be ashamed of you."
It's only a few minutes before Corinne's newfound faith founders. "She got saved today," Wendy blurts to their mother. "Saved from what?" Mom asks. Corinne's not sure, and she stammers out something to the effect that she only raised her hand because she felt like she should.
Thus we're immediately introduced to an important facet of Corinne's spiritual struggle: Is her faith her own, or is it inextricably linked to pleasing others? Corinne will spend the next several decades trying to sort it all out.
Higher Ground unpacks the highs and lows of a spiritual journey in a way I've rarely seen. It does so by exploring the impact Corinne's important relationships have on her along the way, from her feuding parents (who eventually divorce), to her older sister (who wants nothing to do with the church), to her (mostly) devoted husband (Ethan), to her connection with other church women—notably Corinne's best friend (Annika). Each person's life influences Corinne's. And in that sense, Higher Ground illustrates how our personal growth takes place in the context of a broader community.
Ethan deserves credit for being a conscientious and spiritually minded husband (who has one glaring moment of horrific weakness). And Annika, a passionate free spirit, clearly loves her husband and Jesus. Unlike some of the other Christians here, Annika seems three-dimensional, a woman with authentic faith who also thinks and feels deeply. Corinne is drawn to Annika, even if her own experiences with God and marriage are lacking in comparison.
That said, marriage and family are ultimately depicted as blessings. In one marriage, a husband stands by his wife even after cancer leaves her unable to speak.
Corinne longs for a vibrant, deeply felt connection with God. But that proves elusive, an experience that's further tortured by her presence in a radical-feeling (but not wildly uncommon) community of Christians whose members are as certain of their faith as Corinne is uncertain.
The film opens with an outdoor baptism service. As Corinne participates, a flashback recalls the first time she gave her life to God at VBS. Then comes her relationship with Ethan—a critical component of which includes their daughter's life being spared in a bus crash. Ethan feels it's a miracle, which propels them to seek out a Christian group. As Corinne comes out of the water, the implication of her flashback is that the first time she trusted God it didn't "take," so to speak. The unspoken question is whether her baptism now represents genuine conversion.
The balance of the film meanders around that question. Corinne's constantly surrounded by fiercely conservative, Bible-believing folk who quote Scripture in practically every conversation. They spend lots of time singing and praying. And, for the most part, they don't appear to struggle with their faith as they warmly accept everything their leader, Pastor Bill, teaches them.
In contrast, Corinne has questions about God, spiritual experiences, Scripture—almost everything. That curiosity isn't well-served in a place where woman's roles are strictly defined (Corinne gets rebuked by the pastor's wife for "almost preaching" in church), and a place where questions and doubts always come from Satan (several times, people pray to cast him out).
The exception is Annika, who one day begins speaking in tongues in front of Corinne. Corinne is captivated by this language of prayer and longs for the experience herself (despite her husband's suggestion that the gift of tongues can too easily be linked to demonic influence). A poignant scenes involves Corinne desperately mimicking Annika as she tries to pray in such a way, interspersed with begging, "Come on, Holy Spirit!" But it doesn't ever happen for her.
When a tragedy befalls her friend, Corinne's faith is shaken further, and she struggles to pray, sing or worship. Ethan takes her to a "prophetic" Christian therapist who says she's destined for hell apart from repentance ("You are worshipping at the altar of yourself," he intones). Eventually, Ethan tells Corinne there's no point in her going to church anymore.
The final scene finds Corinne at church again, though. Her ex-husband and three children are singing up front. She joins them, then grabs a microphone and talks about her doubts. When she was little, she says, she thought she heard Jesus knocking on the door to her heart. But despite repeated responses to that invitation, she still feels like there are times that "He doesn't come" in, even though she leaves the "The porch light" on. Then she tells the pastor how much she admires his faith and asks for forgiveness for interrupting the church service.
She moves to the back of the church and begins to walk out the door. Then stops and looks longingly back at the people inside. At Ethan. And the scene cuts to black. So we never see whether she stays or goes, and we're left to ponder whether the testimony of sorts she's given is the first step back toward faith or a final statement that her pursuit of God has proven fruitless.
Corinne's teenage love affair with Ethan involves kissing, followed by the pair having sex in a pasture. The camera shows the (still mostly clothed) couple from the shoulders up. It's an ecstasy-inducing experience for Ethan, but Corinne can't stop staring at a pig confined nearby.
She gets pregnant, and the couple gets married.
Annika emphasizes the importance of marital sex and gushes about how much she adores her husband's anatomy. She regularly draws pictures of his penis and hangs them in their bedroom. At one point, she prompts Corinne to draw one of Ethan's, and the resulting comparative conversation is … awkward.
Corrine taunts her husband with talk of her masturbating instead of spending time with him becasue of his inadequacy as a lover. As their union dissolves, it seems that a sexual relationship between Corrine and her mailman is imminent—until she discovers he's married. There's further talk of couples getting divorced when sexual satisfaction wasn't reached. Listening in on a tape series focused on Christians and sex, we hear instruction on how to touch a woman. (Specific anatomical terms and functions are referenced.)
A pastor struggles not to lust after Corinne's mom. Corinne takes her kids to a museum where they (and we) briefly see two photographs of nude women. Her young son remarks about how "voluptuous" a giant nude female statue is. Guys moon and flash people in cars from the back of a bus. (We don't see anything explicit.)
Annika gives pregnant Corinne a foot rub, and Corinne lapses into a fantasy of her friend sucking her toes suggestively. Another fantasy scene involves Corinne seeing herself writhing sensually in lingerie. Still another shows her mother (partially undressed) making out with the pastor (also less than fully clothed) who ran VBS at her childhood church. Corinne and Annika (somewhat inadvertently) feel each others' (clothed) breasts, commenting on them. Annika flirts suggestively with a police officer to get out of a ticket. As a teenager, Wendy stuffs padding in her underwear (and it seems likely she's padding her bra too). Teen boys ogle her.
The aforementioned bus plunges off the road and into a lake. It looks for a while as if they won't be able to save Ethan and Corinne's baby.
An argument between Ethan and Corinne over her increasing emotional distance escalates when he grabs her neck and begins choking her in a moment of uncontrolled rage. (He's immediately regretful.)
Crude or Profane Language
Seven f-words, three s-words. An obscene gesture is made. God's name is misused four or five times (once paired with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused once. We hear a single use of "a‑‑hole."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wendy stays with Corinne and Ethan until their young daughter stumbles upon her aunt's cocaine stash and begins playing with it. Wendy insists she's holding onto it for a friend, but Ethan dumps it in the toilet and kicks her out.
Corinne's father becomes an alcoholic. We see him drinking and drunk.
Other Negative Elements
To try to stop her crying, Corinne places her baby in a lidded, portable ice chest (cooler), using it as an ill-advised, makeshift playpen.
To say that Higher Ground is an unusual film is a significant understatement. Director Vera Farmiga (who also portrays Corinne) has captured the story of a woman on the verge of finding faith even as she's losing it. The result is a compelling—and at times quite racy and profane—narration of one woman's agonizing spiritual journey.
"The protagonist in my film is searching for an authentic faith," Farmiga has said. "The film examines her struggles within all the love relationships in her life—with her parents, her children, her friends, her community, and in her marriage, her relationship to God, and her relationship to self. The examination proves just how porous and murky a spiritual path can be at times. It embraces the gray of black-and-white religion."
Porous and murky and gray. Those descriptors definitely get at the essence of Corinne's meandering spiritual trek. And whether her trek seems inspiring or depressing will likely depend a great deal on how much someone identifies with the hard questions she asks. As well as how she does—or doesn't—answer them.
Explaining what motivated her to make the movie, Farmiga said, "I thought this had the makings of an unusual and important film. The choices and truths it explores are universal: We're all seekers, longing for meaning. … We all, on some level or another, experience moments full of doubt and questioning, feeling disappointed or disillusioned, in need of clarity. … The film asks: Is it possible for faith and doubt to coexist?"
Farmiga, who told Christianity Today she grew up "in a Ukrainian Catholic-turned-Christian household," often deals with particulars of the Christian faith in Higher Ground. But unpacking those particulars, she said in the film's production notes, wasn't her ultimate goal: "Christianity is the 'location' of the film, not the subject, concern or issue. The film could have been set just as easily in a variety of faiths or cultures. I have a deep respect for all religions; I'm most familiar with Christianity. I did not want to make a film about the rights and wrongs of religion. I wanted to be reverent and respectful, and I did not want to infect the story with bias."
Is the film respectful of Christianity? Yes. And not quite. With the exceptions of Corinne and Annika, the Christian characters here are mere wooden icons meant to represent a particular strain of churchgoers. Lots of Scripture gets quoted. Lots of theological issues are batted around. Lots of prayers are offered up. But these people's unflagging spiritual fervor feels hollow. A tad hypocritical. A colleague who also saw the film aptly described them as "sterile" and "porcelain," not the kind of folks you'd want to spend much time with—which is exactly how Corinne feels in the last third of the film too.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Vera Farmiga as Corinne Walker; McKenzie Turner as Young Corinne Walker; Taissa Farmiga as Teenage Corinne Walker; Joshua Leonard as Ethan Miller; Norbert Leo Butz as Pastor Bill; Bill Irwin as Pastor Bud; Michael Chernus as Ned; Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika; Nina Arianda as Wendy Walker
Vera Farmiga ( )
Sony Pictures Classics
August 26, 2011
January 10, 2012