September 14, 2011

MOVIES: Higher Ground (Vera Farmiga, 2011)

Vera Farmiga stars in Higher Ground, which is also her directing debut. It's a character study, the life of a woman in crisis when the religious faith that has always sustained her slowly slips away.

Corinne marries young, to a kind-hearted guitar player named Ethan (Joshua Leonard), and an early near-tragedy solidifies their budding religious faith, leading them to join a close-knit community somewhere in the Northeast.

Her belief is sincere, but never seems to come as easily to her as it does to her husband, or to best friend Annika (a marvelous, lively performance by Dagmara Dominczyk), and she never does quite accept the subordinate position her sect assigns to women. When she loses Annika's friendship, and finds herself and Ethan growing apart, she finds that religion doesn't provide the solace she needs.

Farmiga is to be commended for (mostly) not turning her characters into caricatures; they are not the usual cartoon cliches that Hollywood gives us on the rare occasions that it deals with religion. They are fully rounded, complicated people, and religion is just one part -- albeit an important one -- of who they are. Their faith is taken seriously and respected; characters say things that would be the occasion for cheap laughter in most movies, and they are deeply moving here. (There are a few moments when she loses that respect, notably with an elderly librarian who refuses to let the young Corinne read Lord of the Flies, and is shot like a villain from a monster movie.)

Performances are superb throughout, and Farmiga has assembled a marvelous cast of character actors. In addition to Leonard and Dominczyk, we get Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corinne's parents; Bill Irwin as her childhood pastor, whose enthusiastic preaching to his young pupils is superbly creepy; Norbert Leo Butz as the leader of her religious community; and Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa, as the teenaged Corinne.

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