Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Higher Ground

There is always something about Vera Farmiga that's a tad bit severe.  It's not that's such not beautiful, she is, but there's a certain earthy rawness about her features that are interesting, slightly incongruous and intense.  As an actress, she's always imbued such uncommon intelligence and authority, despite hardly ever speaking more than a slight octave above a whisper, plus a unique sense of humor and play that feels both natural and a bit strange.  In a crowd-pleasing mainstream film like Up in the Air, she managed to romance George Clooney, and still made it feel as though he had to earn it, only to break his heart anyways, and in her breakthrough, Down to the Bone, a microscopic drug abuse indie few have seen, she possessed the same features in such a stark, unsettling and deeply emotional way.  In Higher Ground, which serves as her directorial debut, she's given herself a choice role that fits her beautifully, but it also appears she approaches directing in the same manner as her acting.  Higher Ground, based on the memoir "This Dark World," written by Carolyn S. Briggs (who also co-wrote the screenplay) is a film centered a woman and her struggles to form and reconcile her relationship with God, and neatest trick of the film is that even though the premise isn't cinematic in the least, Farmiga brings such a warmth, sense of humor and such an inquisitive nature to the film that the introspective, deeply personal grappling with ones faith feels not only assured, but universal.  And yet like the actress herself, it's a bit incongruous and rough around the edges, but uncommonly intelligent, and in nice contrast to most faith-based features, blessed with an open heart.

Farmiga plays Corrine, a timid wife and mother searching for the connection between herself and her lord, a relationship that appears so easy to everyone else around her; she and her family live on a sort of Christian-hippie commune type of place.  Her husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) never asks questions of his faith, even in spite of martial discord.  Her best friend Annika (an excellent Dagmara Dominczyk) proudly and teasingly uses her belief as an aphrodisiac.  And all the members of her small church, headed by the pious pastor Bill (played by Broadway vet Norbert Leo Butz) seem more at ease than Corrine, who tries so hard to feel that certain connection.  The beginning of the film shows Corrine's slight unease beginning as a child, where she faked divine intervention for acceptance more so than truly believing.  As a young woman, Corrine (played by Vera's real life younger sister Taissa Farmiga) marries young, and experiences an accident that leads Ethan down a true believers path; Corrine nearly followed.  Setbacks early in life made Corrine susceptible to nearly all that felt loving and true.  Yet, what's most striking about Higher Ground is its non-judgmental mood; for a film that features plenty of sermons, it's always character based and never at once feels like proselytizing, for Corrine's personal skepticism is so thoughtfully, sometimes very movingly rendered.  And Farmiga as a filmmaker, just as an actress strikes a nice blend of shifting between light and dark, and proves a good touch with her strong actors that also include Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corrine's quarrelsome mom and dad, the always welcome Bill Irwin as a preacher that affects young Corrine, Nina Arianda (Midnight in Paris) as Corrine's less than divine sister, and Sean Mahon, who plays a friendly mailman, who strikes a mild flirtation with Corrine.

And it's in the many graceful patches of Higher Ground that it makes it easier to forgive when the film occasionally wobbles, as there a few stretches of over-the-top flights of fancy that never quite work, and a few too many characters that come and go with little consequence, but it's Farmiga's unwavering commitment that shines full and through.  And with a quiet artfulness, she displays a rare and genuine gift at honestly questioning the nature of faith and spirituality with such disarming dignity and intelligence, that Higher Ground in a small, art house way feels akin to cinematic divinity.  B

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