By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin August 30, 2011 at 4:24AM
How stimulating, and utterly refreshing, it is to see a movie with a distinctly female voice that deals with faith, and how one woman grapples with it, through good times and bad, throughout the course of her life. That Vera Farmiga gives an honest, empathetic performance should come as no surprise; she is one of the most gifted and daring actresses of our time, as she’s proved in such films as Down to the Bone, Breaking and Entering, and Up in the Air. This movie allows her to add “director” to her résumé. (After being cast in the film and working for several years with its writers, novelist Carolyn S. Briggs encouraged Farmiga to take—
—on the task of directing as well as starring in Higher Ground, which was inspired by Briggs’ experiences. And she did—while she was pregnant!)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that traced a character’s life through so many phases and transitions, from childhood to maturity, without allowing one moment to seem false or extraneous. Higher Ground follows Farmiga’s journey but is generous in embracing its surrounding characters, with all their imperfections, including her parents (Donna Murphy and John Hawkes), husband (Boyd Holbrook as a young man, Joshua Leonard later on), best friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), and pastor (Norbert Leo Butz). Much of the narrative deals with her life within a tight-knit group of evangelical Christians who become a kind of extended family.
I think the reason I responded so strongly to this film is because, while it deals with people who have fully embraced their religion, it isn’t about dogma, and doesn’t take cheap shots at anyone within, or outside, the world of Christianity. Yet it does have a sense of humor, which mostly involves Farmiga’s free-spirited sister and her irreverent best friend.
Higher Ground deals with a woman’s search for answers in a world that only offers new and challenging questions. At various times in her life she becomes consumed by her religion, then feels abandoned by it. It’s all part of her experience—her quest, if you prefer—but there’s nothing “new agey” about the film. Quite the contrary. Because Farmiga is so direct and believable, her dilemmas seem concrete; it’s the solutions that are hazy or hard to define. As we come to the end of a summer brimming with mindless escapism, it’s bracing to encounter a movie that encourages us to feel and think at the same time.