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Vera Farmiga's Higher Ground centers on a woman who joins and, after a decade, flees a fundamentalist religious order, but the tone isn't irreverent: The film is flushed with wonder, hope, and, finally, heartbreak. In the memoir on which it's based, This Dark World, writer Carolyn S. Briggs never stops longing for a connection to God. And Farmiga, who also plays the protagonist, Corinne, frames the film as a kind of love story, starting the movie with Corinne opening her eyes underwater, at the moment of her baptism, seeing men smiling down like heaven's welcoming committee. Corinne doesn't want to come up for air.
That's when Farmiga cuts to Corinne decades earlier, also holding her breath underwater, but as a child in a bathtub, where she escapes the fighting of her flirty mom, played by Donna Murphy, and angry, alcoholic dad, played by John Hawkes. Farmiga doesn't appear again for more than half an hour, but the two girls playing Corinne in flashback are uncanny. The first, McKenzie Turner, combines a sly intelligence, an impishness, with a seemingly irreconcilable craving to surrender to a higher authority, raising her hand when a choir teacher asks who's willing to pledge his or her life to Christ. As a teenager, Corinne is played by Farmiga's real-life sister, Taissa, who has similarly sky-blue eyes and a presence that's airy but alert.
A budding writer, Corinne falls hard for the high school celebrity, a dreamboat rock musician named Ethan, played by Boyd Holbrook. She gets pregnant, they marry, and become fundamentalists after an accident that almost takes the life of their baby: They join an evangelical church of scruffy, folk-music types—it's the seventies—who believe the Lord also "writes his gospel in the rocks and trees." Coming back to the baptism scene that opened the film, Corinne, sings atop a hill, long hair swaying, and the rapturous vibe is like the musical Godspell with better music. Who wouldn't think, "I want what she's having?"
Farmiga and cinematographer Michael McDonough know how to frame the actors loosely yet catch all the emotions that count, both the harmony and the creeping dissonance. Though Corinne is taken aback by the male hierarchy and the women who help enforce it, Farmiga doesn't turn them into caricatures. They caricature themselves by being so doctrinaire. When her best friend speaks in tongues, an increasingly alienated Corinne is envious. She stands before the mirror replaying Robert DeNiro's "You talkin' to me?" as "Please talk to me!"
That scene is the high point of Higher Ground: You see both Farmiga's satiric brilliance and her deeply sympathetic imagination. Corinne tries to explore her feelings before the congregation, which bridles at her preaching—women aren't supposed to preach—and her questioning spirit. But she doesn't slam the door on the way out, like the self-righteous Nora of Ibsen's A Doll's House. She wishes she could stick around. And Farmiga and co-screenwriter Briggs depict her life outside the faith as full of its own perils.
On the debit side, Farmiga hasn't found the right style for Corinne's surreal visions, which seem silly. And there's a casting glitch. Joshua Leonard plays the older Ethan, and while he's a good actor he doesn't suggest an ex-teen heartthrob. His whininess makes it too easy for Corinne to fall out of love.
Higher Ground would play like an angry anti-conversion melodrama if there weren't a trace of petulance in Corinne's anger at the Holy Spirit for not speaking to her. It's called "faith," after all, because reinforcement can be a long time coming. So the film is complicated, unresolved in the best kind of way. Farmiga's directing debut is amazingly graceful.