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Based on the novel This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs (who also co-wrote the script), Higher Ground is the unusual type of screen gem that will both piss off and captivate religious freaks and non-believers alike.
First-time director Vera Farmiga (Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Up in the Air) does an amazing job capturing the key moments in a spiritual seeker’s life — surrender, euphoria, and doubt — as well portraying the pros and cons of joining any religious organization. But instead of taking the easy way out of making fun of Jesus freaks as uncool nuts, Farmiga processes the power of honest ritual. Her baptism scenes have such beauty that you just want to jump in the river with them, and the hippy-looking freaks are closer to Jesus Christ Superstar than Oral Roberts. Yet, anyone who has ever lived in a religious community (no matter the sect) will recognize the little things that, sooner or later, makes a life of full commitment unbearable for all but the actual saints. To make her point, Farmiga uses biting but gentle humor and a good deal of drama, as in the horrific scene that ultimately inspires her to surrender.
Farmiga’s beauty is as heavenly as her acting (no surprise here) as she plays an adult Corinne Walker, who as a little girl (played by McKenzie Turner) got “saved” by Jesus after raising her hand out of curiosity during one of those Jesus boot camps for children, and as a teenager (brilliantly played by real-life sister Taissa Farmiga) discovered carnal love and, ultimately, God. Or does she? Even though the whole cast is superb, the movie is nearly stolen by Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays her free-spirited friend (and fellow convert) Annika, who speaks in tongues even though the congregation is against it. To watch Corinne in front of the mirror imitating Annika and waiting for the Holy Spirit to appear in her tongue, is to watch a first-rate comedic talent in action.
Higher Ground, which was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, actually transcends religion. It is not about finding God, but about finding — and being honest to — oneself.
Dir. Vera Farmiga; writ. Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe; feat. Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk. (R)