Dir. Vera Farmiga
(2011, R, 112 min)

I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on the quality that makes Vera Farmiga so compelling to me in just about every role she plays. She seems to find more in her characters than is on the page, even when there’s quite a bit on the page. There’s an innate intelligence in her eyes, a vivid interior life that she expresses with clarity. She brings that depth to her starring role in Higher Ground, which also marks her directorial debut, and she’s as natural behind the camera as she is in front of it. She approaches the subject of religious faith with instinctive empathy towards the faithful and the faithless, and the faithless who wish they were faithful.

As a child, Corinne raises her hand when asked if she will accept Jesus into her heart. “Do you hear Him knocking on your door?” the preacher asks his young students. She says yes, though she’s not quite sure what the knocking is supposed to sound like or how it’s supposed to feel when Jesus comes in. When she grows up, she becomes a wife and mother deeply committed to the church but finds herself still waiting to find Jesus, or better yet for Jesus to find her.

For a while she is sincerely devout, a part of a community she values and that values her, though she has desires that have gone unexpressed and ambitions that are discouraged. She gives a testimony of her faith at a service one day and an embarrassment sweeps over the room that we only understand later when an elder parishioner explains that a woman must never preach to men. But her frustrations seem only of passing concern to her until her closest friend falls ill and she is confronted with questions her faith can’t answer. In Farmiga’s face we see the growing distance between her and the people around her, a frustrated search for commonality. A spell has been broken. The others cling to Jesus, but she’s grasping in a void.

Farmiga is generous and humane to all her characters. She does not make a villain or buffoon of Corinne’s husband (Joshua Leonard), and the church, though patriarchal to the extreme, is not depicted as a prison from which to escape. She wishes she had their faith. They wish she had it too. She makes the decisions she makes and no one stops her, though we imagine they pray for her soul. Farmiga, working from a screenplay by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based on Briggs’s memoir, recognizes that this is a story about a woman’s battle not with the church but with herself.