“Higher Ground” is a delicate, nuanced tale of one woman struggling to balance her rebellious intellect with her membership in a restrictive Christian sect. Eventually, after 20 years of obedience and indoctrination, she decides to turn away from her faith.
Actress Vera Farmiga (“Up In The Air”) directed and stars in “Higher Ground,” and also co-wrote the script with Carolyn S. Briggs, whose memoir “This Dark World” is the film’s source material. The story definitely feels true to life; the characters are well developed and the situations Carolyn (Farmiga’s character) finds herself in are fully believable. This isn’t some sort of made-for-TV expose—even the church leaders are figured as good, well-meaning people, not as nutty religious fanatics.
This lack of hysteria helps the audience identify with Carolyn and with the creeping suspicions that gradually lead to the erosion of her faith; rarely has an American film dealt so honestly with the ambiguousness of religion. Though watching the dissolution of Carolyn’s marriage is painful, her transformation from a frightened young mother to a self-confident, independent woman is sincere and inspiring. While her husband grows more and more dependent on the other men in the church, Carolyn starts spending time at the library, reading poetry and delving into the history of the Scriptures rather than just reciting them. When a friend hands her “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, you want to stand up and cheer. Carolyn’s journey towards freedom and self-determination is nothing less than thrilling.
Farmiga’s direction is assured and keeps the story moving while never tipping into melodrama. In other hands the film could have lost its focus on its protagonist’s journey and emphasized the cult-like church instead—but Farmiga maintains her concentration on her character, allowing everything else in the film to swirl around, but never obscure, her. Just for this, the film deserves praise; the fact that it’s also simply excellent is an added bonus.