Finding Faith and Doubt in Higher Ground: a Recommendation from Steve

Why do we believe what we believe? To what degree is our adult faith the product of our childhood exposure to religion? To what degree is our adult faith a reaction to our childhood exposure to religion? What do we do when life gets complex and messy and simple answers that once worked don’t seem to work anymore? Higher Ground is not a great movie, but it is a very good movie that leads to great pondering on those and other questions about faith, doubt, and the presence and/or absence of God. I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to examine questions about their faith and why they practice their faith in the way that they do. However, it must be made clear that this is a movie for adults. Not only does it tackle deep issues, it also does not shy away from the fact that faith is not one part of our life, but that it touches every part of our lives, including our sexuality. There are no sex scenes in the movie, but there are frank discussions about sexuality and imagery of a sexual nature. As with most things in the movie, they are handled in both a sincere and a humorous way. I do not think many adults will find these scenes to be offensive, but you might want to keep them in mind as you consider who your viewing partners might be.

Higher Ground is based on the memoir of Carolyn Briggs, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Corrine, the main character, is played by Vera Farmiga. This is also Farmiga’s directorial debut. She handles both of those roles well. The story follows Corrine from the time when as a young girl she answers her pastor’s altar call at Bible School and opens her heart to Jesus to a time about twenty years later when Corrine wonders if Jesus actually accepted her invitation into her heart. Along the way, Corrine marries her high school sweetheart at a young age. After a nearly tragic event, they feel that God has protected them and as a response they join an close-knit evangelical group. The heart of the film is Corrine’s clear desire to have her faith nurtured by this group and her growing realization that her desire will not be fulfilled. This group could have easily been stereotyped and ridiculed, but the strength of this movie is in the fact that they are presented in an evenhanded manner. Their simplistic faith is evident, and although that particular style of belief clearly does not work for Corrine, the group and its beliefs are not bashed in the film. Certain elements of the movie are somewhat cliched, but even these ring true in their own way because, let’s face it, sometimes life is a bit cliched.

Given the time frame, the part of Corrine is played by three actresses: McKenzie Turner as the young Corrine, Taissa Farmiga during the teenage years, and Vera as Corrine in her 20s and 30s. When I saw Taissa’s name in the end credits, I thought Vera had cast her daughter in the part. It turns out that Taissa is Vera’s younger sister, 21 years younger! It was her first film role and she does a more than adequate job. When Vera took over, I thought she seemed too old for the character at that point, but as Corrine aged, Vera settled nicely into the role. The story does occasionally move ahead without a clear sense of the timing involved, but Vera always provides a few clues to help the viewer get a sense of where things are at. That technique points to an overall strength of the movie. There is no attempt made to give all the answers, or really any answers at all. This is a movie about questions and doubts, but also about the desire for faith even in the midst of those questions and doubts. That being the case, it should be no surprise that the movie does not have a neat and clean ending. Corrine is left pondering and seeking and so are we. I’m thankful for movies that give me the opportunity to do just that.

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