“Higher Ground” tells the story of a woman’s faith struggle. It’s set on the stage of a fundamentalist theology.
Corinne (Vera Farmiga) is earnestly trying to find a way to experience God. The movie begins with her baptism as an adult, but her first experience with faith is not here.
As a child she made a profession of faith in Vacation Bible School. When Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin) tells the children that Jesus wants to come into their hearts, he asks them to close their eyes and raise their hands if they accepted Jesus.
Corrine raises her hand, but she is afraid to tell her mother and does so only haltingly.
As an adult, Corinne is part of a small church. These are people that want to be fully committed to God, and they try to live out what the Bible tells them to do – mostly literally.
They hold that men are the heads of their households; therefore, their wives are to be submissive to them. They also believe that women are not to have any leadership of men or exercise any authority over them.
Corinne’s husband (Joshua Leonard) leads their household in the manner the church condones.
There are moments when we see Corinne chafe under this kind of authority. Once, she gives testimony that some deem to be preaching. She is gently rebuked.
Later, she wears a maternity dress that shows off her shoulders. The pastor’s wife tells her she needs to dress more modestly.
All of this plants a seed of doubt in her mind. That doubt is fully realized when tragedy hits the church. Rejection of faith becomes full blown. At least, that’s what many critics have said about this movie.
As I watched it, I didn’t necessarily see a rejection of faith. I saw a yearning for something more than what this faith group was giving her. Her cup wasn’t running over.
As Corinne goes through life, she longs for what she sees in others. Her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) speaks in tongues. Corinne confesses a desire for this, but never receives the gift.
Later, she calls to God to let her feel his presence, but she doesn’t feel it. I thought she just didn’t feel it in a way she could recognize.
I’m confused about what to say regarding “Higher Ground.” I identify with the movie. Corinne’s struggle is familiar, but the conclusion that many have about it is not mine.
The movie is based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs called “This Dark World,” so it is based on the experience of a real person.
I have no problems with the portrayals here, and there is nothing here that is stereotypical or preachy.
But I find it hard to swallow that one can reject God based solely on the experience of one faith group – especially when that group doesn’t allow for a person to explore faith.
There is nothing in “Higher Ground” that warrants scorn or grand declarations of wrong. It is what it is.
That means the viewer has to decide what he or she feels about faith. And that, I believe, is an important gift.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexual content.
Director: Vera Farmiga
Writers: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe (based on Briggs’ memoir)
Cast: Vera Farmiga: Corinne; Joshua Leonard: Ethan; Dagmara Dominczyk: Annika; Bill: Norbert Leo Butz.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.