One woman's salvation is another's prison in Higher Ground, a complex, messy, defiantly female perspective on the demands of faith and the search for identity.
We first meet Corinne (played by the director, Vera Farmiga, as an adult and by her sister Taissa as a teen) as a bookish, 1960s high-schooler fumbling toward Jesus and boys with equal enthusiasm. When the fumbling results in an unplanned pregnancy and a hasty marriage to Ethan (Joshua Leonard), a sunny musician, Corinne shelves her hopes of becoming a writer. But only in the wake of a narrowly averted tragedy does the couple's casual Christianity harden into evangelical fervor, soon to be followed by membership in a close-knit fundamentalist sect.
What follows is something rarely seen in American movies: a sincerely humane examination of what it means to experience a crisis of faith. Tender, bittersweet and often gently comedic, Corinne's 20-year journey toward (and around, and away from) her God has a loose, searching rhythm that's engrossingly unpredictable. Ensconced in a world of prairie dresses and singalongs, prayer meetings and baptisms, Corinne is initially content, even ecstatic. But when the community's norms begin to chafe -- the Stepford Wives attire and man-pleasing behavior being only the tip of the paternalistic iceberg -- she becomes increasingly anxious. What do you do when losing your religion means losing your family, friends and entire way of life?
Working from Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe's marvelously mobile screenplay (adapted from Briggs' memoir, This Dark World), Farmiga has crafted an astonishingly thoughtful and unsettling debut. Free of judgment or agenda, she focuses on the connection between faith and community, giving Corinne's sect a hippie-commune vibe and a gentle spirituality. Michael McDonough's milky cinematography adds a dreamy, fairytale look that gels perfectly with the time and place, and the performers work together flawlessly to create a world that's neither a condescending caricature nor a rarefied haven.
But the relationship on which Higher Ground pivots -- and from which the film draws most of its richness -- is not the one Corinne shares with her Maker or even her husband. Turning from the constrictions of her life to the free-spirited company of her best friend, Annika (a terrifically earthy Dagmara Dominczyk), Corinne finds a soul mate and a comfort she can't find in church. Together, the women giggle over their preacher's well-meaning attempts at marital advice ("The clitoris is part of God's plan") and exchange sexual secrets. In these moments, the sustaining nature of female friendship elbows every other theme right off the screen.
Strange and satisfying and hostile to easy answers, Higher Ground tackles big questions with affecting humility. "Do you know what carob tastes like? Disappointment," whispers Corinne to Annika when one of their group bakes carob-chip cookies. The remark echoes beyond that scene to encompass a life that will never be enough. In the end, Corinne's journey is riveting not because she seeks the divine, but because she finds herself. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.