Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ebert Thoughts ‘12—Higher Ground (2011) ***

R, 109 min.
Director: Vera Farmiga
Writers: Carolyn S. Briggs (also memoir “This Dark World”), Tim Metcalfe
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Chernus, Dagmara Dominiczyk, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Sean Mahon, Barbara Tuttle, Nina Arianda, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Bill Irwin

I’m a little conflicted in my feelings on Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut “Higher Ground”. It’s about a woman, played by Farmiga, who endures a lifelong struggle with her own Christian faith. Certainly her life is filled with reasons to both embrace faith and question it. I suppose everyone’s is. But, I guess that gets to the heart of my conflict about the film. There don’t seem to be any other characters who struggle with their faith in it.

The movie presents a very insulated church family. They start out as sort of a hippie outcropping of young Christians trying to escape the problems caused by their alternative lifestyles. Although, much is stated about the lead’s inspirations for becoming a Christian, little is explained about the church to which she belongs. The church is very strict in their beliefs about the roles of males and females within the church. This is where many of her doubts about her faith begin.

The movie is based on the memoir of Carolyn S. Briggs, entitled “This Dark World”. She also wrote the screenplay, and her story’s original title says something about how she felt about her treatment as a woman in the church of her formative years as a Christian. I get the impression that she is still a Christian but has ventured away from the repressive strictures of her original church. But, I don’t know that for sure. I wish I did, because the movie is very critical of the church. I don’t know if it intends to be critical of all organized Christianity, or just that particular church.

That confusion aside, her story is incredibly compelling and Farmiga’s direction is sure-handed for a debut. The movie does a good job showing Farmiga’s uncertainly about her faith, and the uncomfortable structure of her own family life. Joshua Leonard makes interesting choices as her husband, who isn’t the repressive force the church teaches him to be. Nor is he supportive of his wife. He’s kind of a doormat, which can be just as damaging to a partnership as the repressive notions advocated by their church.

I’m very interested in reading the book by Briggs to see if it offers more insight into her conclusions on her faith and Christianity. I feel like her story is incomplete in this movie. I don’t feel Christianity as a whole is dealt with fairly here, and I’m not sure that is intentional on the filmmaker’s part. The movie certainly shows, however, how damaging faith without question can be.

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