“Higher Ground” marks the directorial debut of Vera Farmiga. Based on “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost,” by Carolyn Briggs, the film yells the story of how she, along with several other Hudson Valley families in the 1970s, combined counter-culture diets and styles with right-wing Christianity.
The film, which Briggs adapted along with Tim Metcalf (who co-wrote “Revenge of the Nerds”—go figure) follows young Corinne from her earliest days in Bible school earning disapproving looks for reading “Lord of the Flies,” to her romance with Ethan (played as an adult by Joshua Leonard), the front man for a local rock band with whom she ultimately has a shotgun wedding, to their conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.
Of course, the kind of kid who reads “Lord of the Flies” probably isn’t long for such a life, where women aren’t allowed to preach, are blamed for men’s arousals and get scolded for “worshiping at the altar of yourself!”
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Farmiga remains respectful of those who believe, while exploring how one woman can lose her way. The film is peppered with hilarious hallucinatory moments during which Corinne imagines herself gyrating in lingerie or getting a shrimp job from a female friend—visions that can be troubling enough under the best circumstance (we’re only guessing), but can really shake the faith of a true believer.
The film offers a fascinating look at a culture—hippy Jesus freaks--that barely made a dent in the country at large. There’s a serious cognitive dissonance that comes from watching a bunch of tree-huggers calling out to the lord, a dissonance made stronger still by how disapproving they are of Corinne’s awakening.
This is Farmiga’s film all the way, and she keeps up her end of the bargain as Corinne, but it’s Joshua Leonard and Dagmara Domiczyk who give the film’s best performances. Leonard all but disappears behind his beard and faith, a man strongly possessed by an abiding faith--the torture he feels at the changes his wife undergoes is deep. Domiczyk, meanwhile, is incredibly sexy as Corinne’s best friend, Annika, a woman who’s found happiness despite the strict constraints of her faith. And let's not forget Bill Irwin, who singlehandedly makes his one scene in the film the movie's best as a super creepy preacher with a whiff of predator about him.
"Higher Ground" is a capably directed first film in which Farmiga explores how difficult it can be to keep one's faith, and how much harder it is to let that faith go.