Falling short on a leap of faith
When actors take it upon themselves to direct, it’s often less because they have things to say or stories to tell than people to explore. I’m thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “Jack Goes Boating’’ (2010) or Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle’’ (1997) or any other labor of love from a respected player - films that circle around their central characters and search for a deeper way in.
“Higher Ground,’’ the first movie directed by Vera Farmiga, falls into this category to the point of frustration. The film, based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-wrote the script), is unusual for a number of reasons, not least because it offers a sympathetic, if hardly uncritical, portrait of evangelical Middle America. It shows this world from a woman’s perspective, carefully noting where a smart, Jesus-loving housewife’s ambitions might be indulged by the male church hierarchy and where she’d get shut down hard.
Mostly, though, “Higher Ground’’ is a drama about loss of faith, told over the long haul of one woman’s life. Corinne is played by Farmiga with a sort of tensile fragility, a slow-motion sense of questing that turns deeply sad over the years. Her faith gives her so much - family, community, a place in the world - without giving her the one thing she yearns for: a palpable sense of God’s presence.
Interestingly, the film’s at its strongest when Corinne is a teenager and played by the director’s younger sister, Taissa. Vaguely curious about the church as a child (Bill Irwin puts in an amusingly square turn as her first pastor), she has been made cynical by the rancorous relationship of her parents (Donna Murphy and John Hawkes) and fallen into the arms of a dreamy-eyed rock ’n’ roller named Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). There’s a baby and a marriage and, after a nearly tragic accident on the road, a double conversion to the Lord. It’s the 1980s - morning in America.
The younger Farmiga is a sensible beauty and the family bond may have something to do with the charged yet protective power of these scenes. Soon enough, though, we’ve leaped ahead a few years: Corinne is played by the director, Ethan by Joshua Leonard, and they’re fully invested in the life of their church.
Only it’s not enough for Corinne. It’s never enough, and the drama of “Higher Ground’’ is that she’s not allowed to say it’s not enough, or really even think it. (Forget about preaching it: Whenever Corinne gets to her feet to question or to testify, she’s treated like a drunk at a barbecue.) The heroine’s best friend is a mischievously sensual Polish woman named Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who has a great sex life with her husband (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and the ability to speak in tongues. Corinne’s crazy jealous of both, but it’s the speaking in tongues that gets her. Time and again she opens her mouth for the spirit to shine through and feels nothing.
Problem: How do you dramatize lack? Annika is much better company than Corinne - and Dominczyk is a grinning quicksilver actress you immediately want to see more of - because she instinctively knows who she is. Farmiga, by contrast, mopes, sometimes touchingly, sometimes angrily, sometimes in abject despair, and to increasingly unfocused effect. As a director, she hasn’t found a visual correlative for Corinne’s inner journey, a way to guide an audience so we intuitively understand what’s happening inside the character.
Colleen Sharp’s editing lets the film down, too, going slack just when it should be tightening its grip. The end result’s a muddle and a good argument for why actors shouldn’t direct themselves first time out. Farmiga’s a generous and observant performer, but she lacks a shaping hand, not to mention the ruthlessness that’s probably a necessity for any director. “Higher Ground’’ is a noble failure, a case of an artist loving a character so much that she loses sight of why.