Amusements Rick McGinnis

In the 2009 film Up In The Air, George Clooney and co-star Vera Farmiga were enlisted to basically make air miles seem sexy. In Higher Ground, the directorial debut in which Farmiga also stars, she’s set herself an even more difficult task – making an intelligent, general interest film about religious faith.

In a featurette included with the film’s DVD release, Farmiga reflects that, right now, there are films made for Christians, and films that parody Christianity, and that she wanted to make a film somewhere in between. Even more audaciously, she’s made a film centred on a born-again evangelical and her community, with a directness and sympathy that I can’t actually recall in any recent Hollywood film not made for the faith-based, “church basement screening” market.

Farmiga and her younger sister Taissa play Corinne, who we follow from her childhood in the ‘60s to the ‘80s, when she goes from being the book-obsessed younger child in a family breaking apart to a mother herself, struggling with her faith and marriage. It had personal resonance as a child of the working class during the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the cataclysmic social changes of those decades trickled down in the most destructive way, adding extra burdens to families ill-equipped for the extra pressure, especially as the postwar economic boom ran out of gas along with our cars.

Teen pregnancy and an early marriage put Corinne and her husband Ethan in an anxious place, so when a road accident almost kills their child, they turn to God in gratitude. Young and suddenly born-again, they find their way to one of the charismatic evangelical churches that were popping up all over in the aftermath of the ‘60s, and become what were once called – sometimes pejoratively, sometimes not – Jesus Freaks.

Farmiga is unflinching in her portrait of Corinne and Ethan’s community, with their beards and homespun dresses, riverside baptisms and touchy-feely rhetoric. It’s a strange world – rapture-seeking fundamentalists whose pastors make the men sit through earnest but excruciating instructional sex tapes; Farmiga barely lets the viewer get a glimpse of the world outside the group but she’s never mocking or condescending. These are people desperate for answers and a way to be good, working with what was on the cultural shelf at the time, for people of their age.

As the film progresses, Corinne is beset by obstacles in the path of her faith, including the casual patriarchy of her congregation, which is ironically policed largely by wives, eager to keep other women, like themselves, in their place. (It’s a brief but sly portrait of how patriarchies are often a flimsy vehicle powered by the engine of a matriarchy, and it doesn’t get examined enough.) She also finds herself jealous of her earthy, good-humoured best friend and her gift of speaking in tongues. Even more than her growing estrangement from her husband and the rest of the congregation, this fills Corinne with frustration and doubt, and ultimately begins her crisis of faith.

You can’t help but reflect that Corinne was unfortunate in her choice of a church, considering the resurgent evangelical movement’s stress on direct witness of God and its fatalistic embrace of grateful helplessness – “God’s will” – in the face of tragedy. It leaves Corinne in a difficult place, unable to satisfy her own intellectual curiosity or engage with the steady drumbeat of misfortune in her own life, and it gives her nowhere to go when she leaves her marriage and her church.

If that sounds like a poor message, it plays like a tragic one, since Farmiga’s film is quite explicit about the grief and lasting damage that come from divorce, in the film’s most poignant scene, at a birthday party for Corinne’s youngest child. While her own marriage is collapsing, she sees her mother and father, long-divorced, confronted with the ache of their own rashness and loss. The deep irony of Corinne’s story is that her search for the higher ground of the title ultimately leaves her in a lonelier place, free of restraints but with precious little solace. It is, in many ways, the story of a whole generation.