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Higher Ground – Film Review

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Higher Ground - Vera Farmiga
Corinne (Vera Farmiga) © 2011 Sony

This split-personality spiritual saga tries its damnedest not to offend born-again conservative Christians for most of its running time. But you just know dat ole debbil “Rational Thought” is going to raise his blasphemous head before the credits roll, making every no-fun fundamentalist who’s still hymn-singing and amening by then look like a self-deceiving fool. ‘Twas ever thus.

First-time director Vera Farmiga stars as Corinne, a Bible-believing, Bible-quoting and basically Bible-bananas young mother in a suburban community that’s culturally somewhere to the right of Big Love, but without the polygamy and Mormonism. The women wear long dresses and pressure each other to be submissive to their men. Families go to church every Sunday, seem to spend most other nights of the week studying the Good Book in each other’s homes, and pray so long and so loud that you know they surely to God mean it.

There’s supposed to be a chick-flick dramedy in here about Corinne’s lifetime of trials and tribulations. As a young girl (played by McKenzie Turner in pigtail braids), Corinne pretends to hear Jesus knocking on the door of her heart in order to get special attention from her pastor. As a 1970s teenager (played by Farmiga’s real-life 16-year-old sister Taissa Farmiga, and the family resemblance is amazing), she gets knocked up by a rock-band guitarist and married in a maternity bridal gown. As an adult, she’s tested by marital strife and a friend’s medical tragedy.

The problem is that it’s hard to find any credibility in Corinne’s unreasoning acceptance of her cult-like lifestyle, because she never comes across as gullible, stupid or crazy. (The Lord of vengeance will smite me for that remark, I realize.) As a child, she’s smart and inquisitive enough not only to use the library regularly, but to try checking out the above-her-grade-level Lord of the Flies. Which counts for something.

Higher Ground - Joshua Leonard and Vera Farmiga
Ethan (Joshua Leonard) and Corinne (Vera Farmiga) © 2011 Sony

Adapted from the memoir This Dark World by Carolyn S Briggs (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe), Higher Ground includes so many small moments it often feels “bitty.” Some scenes last only long enough to deliver a joke. Many of the early segments are as disjointed as a less artsy-pretentious The Tree of Life: Corinne feeding a piglet with a baby bottle on a kitchen floor, rolling in the rust of an empty swimming pool, sitting hidden on the stairs hoping dismissive dad will tell mom she looks pretty and he loves her.

The filmmakers’ apparent intent to be respectful (or at least not openly disrespectful) of evangelical fanatics is a losing game. No matter how non-judgmental the movie tries to be, it’s hard to make talking in tongues and casting out Satan seem like mere eccentricities. And any dad who angrily objects to letting his son practice soccer instead of learning his “memory verses” can’t help looking like a flakey Flanders.

Some of the intentionally comic scenes actually are funny, including a men’s group meeting devoted to learning the audiocassette-taught techniques of “Christ-Like Sex” (“clitoral stimulation is part of God’s plan”). And Corinne’s session with an Egg McMuffin-minded marriage counselor named Dick (Jack Gilpin) who considers himself a prophet is hilarious. Dick is so earnestly self-righteous we’re clearly supposed to laugh at him and not with him, making him almost unique in such an otherwise excruciatingly tolerant movie.

Corinne’s earthily extroverted friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) offers some broad and hammered-in comic relief of her own, such as charming a cop out of writing Corinne a ticket by using the bizarre excuse that she had a front-and-back wedgie. But a weird scene in which Corinne sexually fantasizes about having her toes sucked by Annika leads nowhere — neither to shamed penance nor to any sort of questioning doubt.

Similarly, a handsome Irish mailman (Sean Mahon) who pops up near the end to read Yeats to Corinne while she’s gardening seems flown in from a Harlequin novel.

In an eventual conscience-clearing confession to her congregation, Corinne uses the “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse to admit her lack of genuine spiritual feeling. Based on the hypocrisy and injustice she’s seen by then, however, it doesn’t wash that she still would want to pay even lip service to the concept that everything is part of God’s mysterious plan, much less apologize for not “getting it.”

The unwaveringly devout will take comfort in Corinne’s words. Godless secular humanists will read between the lines and do the same. Hallelujah, everybody wins!

[Rating:2]

This movie will be released on Friday August 26, from Sony.