Take Me Higher, by David Bax
Here in America, there’s always been a strained relationship between the movies and Christianity. As a predominantly Christian nation, we seem to want our movies to reflect our most common beliefs. However, most people referring to themselves as Christians in this nation aren’t precisely what you would call devout. So we seem to want that reflected in our cinema, too. In broad terms, Americans would prefer their movies, like their politicians, to give lip service to their nominal religion without being too conspicuously or off-puttingly committed to any particular idea or denomination.
Still, it’s probably easier to get away with making a brazenly pro-Christian film in America than a brazenly anti-Christian one. Once your message regarding religion is explicit, people are forced to take a side and, with the possibility of eternal damnation factoring in, it’s going to be hard not to offend.
Luckily, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground, is not an anti-Christian film. Unless, that is, you’d prefer to see it that way. The film tells the story of a woman named Corinne who grows up in the standard American brand of perfunctory Christianity but is compelled by a series of events over the course of her young life to dedicate herself to a more devout, evangelical brand of the faith. After setting up those early events over the course of the film’s first half or so using a series of young actresses at different ages, the movie settles into Corinne’s adult life, where Farmiga herself plays the role of a woman for whom faith has slowly become a less reliable source of comfort and inspiration. What elevates the movie to a better, more nuanced sphere and what transforms it into something that a thoughtful Christian would actually enjoy is the fact that it walks a very thin line between condemning Jesus Christ and condemning the very human people who make up His followers.
Ultimately, no matter how much a filmmaker has to say on a subject, the best drama comes from the human elements, not the academic ones. Farmiga understands this and uses her film as a treatise on evangelical Christianity only in a secondary sense. Really, she’s exploring the life of a woman who, for various reasons at various times, has been consistently disappointed by her experiences on this planet. There is a recurring presence in Higher Ground of accordions and, along with them, discussions of Corinne needed to “find her instrument.” It’s an effective, if obvious, metaphor and one that goes a long way toward proving that this is not a movie about whether Christianity is right but whether it’s right for everyone and in what form.
The film marks the passage of time with subtle period details, most of them involving wardrobe. The manner of dress is tied to the year but also recognizes the characters’ roots in the post-hippie 1970’s. This realism is mirrored in the performances. Farmiga extracts a naturalism from her actors that is immersive, plunging you into the hermetic, clannish society that envelops the members of Corinne’s particular church.
Her other major contribution as director is a delightful, playful and sometimes even raunchy sense of humor. On the one hand, this serves to illustrate that Christians aren’t all humorless prudes. More importantly, though, it lends the film a unique voice that clearly belongs to Farmiga and allows Higher Ground to stand apart from the tediously melancholy journey-of-discovery movie it could have been.
Troublingly, and perhaps a symptom of the director’s inexperience, the film pretty horribly botches its ending. A story that has thus far been quiet, realistic and subtle veers suddenly into cathartic speechifying. It was a bit frustrating to see it wrap up in such an unfortunate and misplaced way. The emotional journey ended in the right place but the screenplay seemed to have been substituted in from a different kind of movie altogether.
What’s more heartening, though, is Farmiga’s arrival as a filmmaker. Many actors who turn to directing only seem interested in directing actors. With Higher Ground, Vera Farmiga has directed an entire film. It’s a good one but I believe she can do better. I can’t wait to see her try.