Sundance 2011: HIGHER GROUND Review

     January 24, 2011

Religion is a tricky topic.  It’s incredibly easy to mock it or to preach it.  But an honest exploration of faith requires complete commitment and a willingness to let non-believers scoff and the holier-than-thou scorn.  Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground manages the impressive task of fully committing to its characters’ faith.  Unfortunately, it never transforms that commitment into a more fulfilling experience.  Despite an earnest approach to the Christian faith, Farmiga never finds anything interesting to say about it.

Higher Ground follows the life story of Corinne (Farmiga).  The movie starts slow and never picks up much speed.  We see Corinne’s childhood home-life, her introduction to Christianity, her intellectual curiosity, her marriage at a young age, and finally her “coming-to-God” moment.  This is all before we finally get to see Corinne as an adult and her total devotion to Christianity.  While everything in the first act isn’t unnecessary, it could have been condensed and more creatively explained.

Once we see Corinne’s life as a devout Christian, the film picks up a little bit of steam, but can’t maintain its pace.  Watching Corinne go through the paces of her Christian life is curious, but Farmiga doesn’t seem to know what’s worthwhile in the story and what’s not.  She also isn’t able to bring a spark to the proceedings.  There are some laughs from the oddities of her Evangelical faith, but almost everything is presented so matter-of-fact that there rarely seems to be much joy in Christianity.  When Corinne expresses her desire to speak in tongues so she can be closer to God, it’s a wonderful moment because the film rarely shows the love from these people who love Jesus.

To its great credit, Higher Ground never thumbs it nose at faith and that is incredibly admirable.  The film has the potential to be something special because it makes no judgment on the devotion of its characters.  It questions their discriminatory practices and close mindedness, but it nurtures their total belief in God and the Devil as physically real entities that can be called upon and fought against in one’s daily struggles.

But Higher Ground never connects the faith of its characters to something grander.  There are no deep insights or even much of an emotional connection.  It’s not a film that’s about big performances and it’s clear that Farmiga is actively making a choice not to go big (except in brief, bizarre fantasy sequences that feel like a comic crutch) and that’s fine if you’ve got intensity or complexity simmering beneath the surface. Higher Ground could have been divine, but the story and Farmiga’s direction rarely manage to raise the film’s spirit.

Rating: C

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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