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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Movie Review - Higher Ground

Higher Ground (2011)
Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Taissa Farmiga, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, and John Hawkes
Directed by Vera Farmiga

Movies about Christianity often fall into one of two categories: films made by and for the faithful, thus having a tendency to cater only to that religious viewpoint; or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, movies that poke fun at faith and its believers.  Director and star of Higher Ground Vera Farmiga makes note of this on the blu-ray commentary of her directorial debut, hoping that her film doesn't fall into either of those two groups, instead presenting a look at one woman's view of the positives and negatives offered up by "faith."  Farmiga succeeds at that and while she doesn't quite have a perfect film on her hands, she has helmed a movie that never condescends religion or its followers, but also questions the simple act of "following blindly."

Taking place over three decades from the 1960s to the 1980s, Higher Ground follows the life of Corinne Walker from ten to about forty years old.  Pregnant as a young teen, Corinne (played at this stage by Taissa Farmiga, Vera's real-life sister) marries her childhood sweetheart, and after a near tragic event that almost kills her newborn, Corinne and her husband turn to religion and give themselves wholly over to faith.  We jump ahead in time to Corinne's adult life (in which she is played by Vera Farmiga) and discover that she and her husband (Joshua Leonard) are well-respected members of an evangelical church presided over Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz).  Corinne becomes good friends with one of the female members (Dagmara Dominczyk), a Polish gal who opens Corinne's eyes up to other methods of becoming one with God, much to the chagrin of Corinne's husband and her Christian congregation.  As time passes, it soon becomes obvious that the strict conformity of Pastor Bill's church is forcing Corinne to question her faith and that is disturbing to her as she still strives to believe in a higher power.

Shockingly, the film rarely portrays its religious figures as insanely devout as we're prone to see in many films (including one that place in my Top Five screenplays of the year) and it's a welcome relief.  Yes, they're sometimes overzealous in their faith, but they felt real for the most part.  Broadway actor Norbert Leo Butz gives a particularly welcome portrayal of Pastor Bill, presenting him as a man of God who stands for what he believes in, but never allowing the pastor to stoop into bombastic cinematic caricature or stereotype.

In addition to Butz, supporting performances all around are quite good, including nice turns from Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corinne's mother and father who go through rough times of their own, recent Tony winner Nina Arianda as Corinne's wild child sister, and the aforementioned Dagmara Domincyzk who helps bring some comic relief to the film thanks to her character's friendship with Corinne.

Vera Farmiga herself is always a pleasure to watch onscreen and I've said before that she's one of my favorite actresses working today.  There's a genuineness and a sense of calm about her that's always very unassuming, but she still manages to always be a presence whenever she's onscreen.  As a director, she does an admirable job, but does have a difficult time trying to balance the comedic lightness and dramatic heaviness that she tries to create here.  While I appreciated the humorous moments she tries to infuse into the film, they oftentimes felt out of place with everything surrounding them (the less said about the unsettling toe-licking scene the better).  Still, this is an interesting and thought-provoking work that provides a respectable questioning of faith that we don't often see in movies.

The RyMickey Rating:  B-

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