'Higher Ground' a strong directing bow for actress

Updated: 2011-01-25 17:50


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PARK CITY, Utah – No one should really be surprised that Vera Farmiga brings the same meticulous craftsmanship and passion for truth found in her extraordinary acting to her debut as a director in "Higher Ground."

The film is a deft, graceful and often poignant story of a woman's quest to find her own identity and a spiritual sanctuary that will give her life hope and meaning.

As with the Sundance film that first brought her acclaim as an actress, "Down to the Bone," "Higher Ground" will flourish on the festival circuit and has definite arthouse appeal.

Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe's screenplay derives from Briggs' memoir about her life as a born-again Christian who nevertheless harbors doubts. The film follows its fictional protagonist, Corinne, from her adolescence in a troubled home into a marriage that probably came far too early.

As a youngster goaded by a smooth-talking minister, Corinne, a self-conscious and insecure girl, accepts Jesus as her lord and savior without really understanding what that means. She likes literature though and even finds a way to check an adult novel out of the library.

Constant quarrels between her parents help drive the teenage Corinne into the arms of Ethan Miller, a singer-songwriter for a teen band. Pregnancy brings a quick marriage so any thought of pursuing education or writing vanishes. When a near tragedy involving their infant daughter is averted, the couple accepts this as a divine miracle and joins a small fundamentalist community.

It's now the '60s but the counter-culture and feminist ideology make no inroads into Corinne and Ethan's life.

However, her closest female friend gives her a more caring and loving relationship than she has with her husband although the marital discontents only emerge gradually as three young children occupy her time.

American films are usually very poor at conveying spiritual crises. It's far easier to mock religion than to deal honestly with true believers and questions of faith. Farmiga and her writers never stoop to this. Corinne really wants to find peace and happiness within her community. But its answers to her questions are inadequate and its narrow focus on family and church ultimately don't gibe with her much wider interests.

The film is at times funny, romantic, tender and heart-breaking as it embraces all the quirks and struggles in the lives of its characters. The non-judgmental approach adapted by Farmiga allows all the actors to maintain the integrity of their characters without exaggeration or caricature.

The director's younger sister, Taissa Farmiga, very ably plays the teenage Corinne, while Farmiga herself takes over as the mother searching for higher meaning. There is a real continuity here, a very pleasing and seamless development of a character, rich in subtlety and depth of feeling. The loss of her vivacious woman friend (Dagmara Dominczyk, wonderful) through tragic illness hits Corinne hard and shakes her faith in the Almighty's reach into human affairs. Her estrangement from her husband perplexes her as well, and the movie offers no bad behavior on his part to justify the estrangement as most movies would.

Joshua Leonard plays Ethan as a loving husband who doesn't lack for compassion but rather insight into his own wife's heart. He never understands her nor sees that the church he built his family's life around is his church, not hers.

The film finds comedy here and there in the quirks of the faithful but never make fun of its characters. Their faith is even admirable: It gives their lives meaning and substance. The film's two pastors are a wee strident and closed minded but clearly this stems from ardent faith and a belief in their own mission within the small community.

Farmiga's crew, filming in New York's Hudson River Valley, beautifully establishes a sense of community within the region's rustic charms without period details overwhelming the muted drama. Directing debuts by actors don't come any better than this.


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