In one of the opening scenes of Higher Ground, vacation Bible school is in full swing at a local church. The children are gathered in the sanctuary, listening with rapt attention to the charismatic pastor describing how Jesus is knocking on the door of their hearts, hoping to be let inside. The children are instructed to bow their heads and close their eyes. If they have made the decision to let Jesus into their hearts, the pastor wants them to raise their hands. There is a rustling, a shifting of weight, as various children try their hardest to be pious while straining to see who is raising their hands today. No one wants to be the first; obviously eternal hellfire is secondary when compared to the flames of childhood inhibition. They peek through fingers and listen intently to their neighbors, intensely focused on each other rather than God. I have been in similar rooms on more than one occasion in my life. Once or twice, I even raised my hand. This was more for attention than spiritual conversion. New converts are treated joyously in evangelical Christian services; there are long lines of handshaking, hugging, and tearful congratulations. What 9 year old wouldn’t want to experience it more than once? The conversion is entirely social, however. Children aren’t developed enough to question and understand the mysteries of the soul. Higher Ground looks into the heart of faith, the formation of belief—and the decision to let it go. It tells us that a childlike faith will only take you so far; the rest of the way takes something else entirely.
Corinne (Vera Farmiga) didn’t have much of a chance, really. Her family was broken and poor, especially after the childbirth loss of her brother. She is smart enough, but her faithful flock tries to keep her pure from outside influence. Her local librarian (and church matron) routinely screens her checkouts. Lord of the Flies is strictly off limits in her community. She remains bookish, however, and writes frequently. She attracts the attention of a young guitarist and gets pregnant and married before she turns 19. What follows is a series of vignettes from Corinne’s life. We see her conversion and acceptance into a grassroots group of “Jesus Freaks,” an evangelical combination of hippie love and Christian reverence. We see the way her faith has woven its way into every aspect of her life, from her friendships to her marriage to her child rearing. We see the group cling to each other in times of crisis, claiming God’s mercy when an outsider sees the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And we see Corinne gradually losing her faith, through gentle rebukes and spousal ennui.
The film is special in its treatment of Christianity and Christians. Never is the church vilified. Corinne is never ostracized either, despite her “sinful” decisions. The church is clearly full of people who love each other and have chosen a narrow path for their lives. However, a mirror does reveal harsh truths, and at times the characters in this film walk a thin line between deeply spiritual and spiritually obsessed. The beliefs may seem more than simply quaint; the antiquated views on women are especially grating. But actor/director Vera Farmiga could have satirized the church, making them clowns or demons. Instead, she chose to allow the characters to speak for themselves, convincingly and without pretense. There are times that this gets away from her, especially towards the end, as the character of Corinne seems to have sudden qualities and interests that aren’t evident in earlier characterizations. Maybe they were always there, just below the surface. Or maybe they were just expressed in other ways in her church.The audience is left to guess her motivations, which is a bit frustrating considering how close we get to understanding her character. But the film succeeds in what it sets out to do; it tells the story with grace and understanding.
Higher Ground struck a peculiar, personal chord with me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist household. I know dozens of people just like those seen in the film. During my high school years, I tried my best to emulate them. But I wasn’t one. I just merely played the part. Deep down, I knew that I just didn’t have what they did. That’s why I identified so clearly with Corinne. At the end, I don’t know that she lost her faith. She just realized that it wasn’t as black and white as she wished it could be. I echo her sentiment, however. I really admire that type of faith.
Directed by Vera Farmiga
Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard,
Running time: 109 minutes