Vera Farmiga has done something miraculous in her directing debut, "Higher Ground." She's managed to make a movie about religion that's neither preachy nor mocking, and she treats her characters with great decency and respect.
Farmiga extends that courtesy to herself as its star, and her character, Corinne - like the movie itself - seems to be seeking answers with an open heart.
Based on the memoir "This Dark World" by Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-wrote the script with Tim Metcalfe), "Higher Ground" traces Corinne's evolution from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, beginning with the time she was a little girl and thought she was saved at vacation bible school through her adulthood as a still-questioning wife and mother of three.
She and her would-be rocker husband, Ethan (played as a teenager by Boyd Holbrook and as an adult by Joshua Leonard), fall in with an insular, evangelical Christian community, full of happy hippies who sing hymns and hold their services outdoors. Corinne seems to have found the security and nourishment she'd long been looking for, but still experiences bouts of doubt that others don't seem to share. It's as if she's constantly trying to talk herself into believing, even though she outwardly appears so fervent, and Farmiga makes that precarious state of faith palpable.
There's always been a striking naturalism to her performances in films ranging from "Down to the Bone" to "The Departed" to her Oscar-nominated supporting work in "Up in the Air." Here, she applies a similar approach behind the camera, which draws us in and makes Corinne's journey feel immediate and relatable, regardless of where any of us might stand in terms of our own spirituality. Corinne is equal parts sweetness and sharp intellect, and "Higher Ground" probably sounds rather somber, but Farmiga also deftly conveys the absurdity of Corinne's predicament. Every once in a while she'll let out a cackle that's just pure joy.
But seeing her in such moments of bliss makes the darker times stand in stark contrast. The lack of support she receives from her husband as she suffers this crisis of faith is just one in a series of events that shake her to her core. But again, "Higher Ground" doesn't judge him or vilify him; there are no bad guys - that's what's so refreshing. Even some of the more judgmental church members who urge Corinne to mind her place are depicted not as cruel but as well-intentioned. And as the film concludes, there's still a bold sense of ambiguity; Corinne's fate is open for interpretation.
The excellent supporting cast includes the ever-versatile John Hawkes and Donna Murphy as Corinne's parents, and a vivacious Dagmara Dominczyk as the one free spirit in her otherwise structured, conservative church.
But it's Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa, who plays the character as a pregnant newlywed teen, who really stands out. Yes, she looks startlingly like the elder Farmiga and even has some of the same mannerisms and facial expressions. But her performance is also crucial to laying the emotional groundwork for us to want to go down this path with Corinne, wherever it may take us. And we do.
The Sony Pictures Classics release is rated R for some language and sexual content. Running time: 109 minutes.