You can count on one hand the number of American movies that take the question of religion seriously. Not the big themes like "Is there a God?," but the more immediate question of how do you live your life in an honorable Christian way every single day, and what happens when you grow to genuinely question your faith? Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, addresses these issues with a low-key intensity -- it strives for truth as much as the main character does.
Adapted from a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (she co-authored the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe), Higher Ground follows Corinne (Farmiga) during her quest, beginning at childhood, to live a Christian life. We first see her at a young age, witnessing her parents' affection for each other, and soon enough raising her hand when a local minister asks a children's group who is ready to receive Christ. In her teen years she falls for classmate Ethan (Joshua Leonard), the leader of a popular local rock band. They marry young, have a baby, and after a scary car accident on the way to a gig that almost kills their infant daughter, decide to rededicate their lives to their religion.
They eventually join a church led by the paternalistic Bill (Norbert Leo Butz). Probably because Corinne purposefully chooses to lead a somewhat sheltered life, she's drawn to the free-spirited Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), her best friend in the congregation. Annika seems to have found the right balance of devotion to God -- Corinne is blown away by her friend's ability to speak in tongues -- and enjoying earthly delights -- in one of their many bonding moments they each sketch their husband's penis. Their friendship brings out the best in both women, and over the course of a decade or so, Corinne grows to rely on Annika when her faith in the Lord and her husband starts to waver.
There really isn't much narrative drive in the movie, and that's just fine because Farmiga -- as both an actor and a director -- wants to go deep into the character. Her naturalism as a performer extends to her work behind the camera; she has cast the film to perfection, and gives her actors enough space so that they all register, even if none of them gets as much screen time as Corinne. John Hawkes is typically superb as her loving father, Butz makes Bill into one of the few cinematic religious leaders who doesn't seem at all corrupted by the power he has, and Dominczyk turns Annika into the kind of best friend we all wish for.
Farmiga also has a gift for editing that breaks away from standard convention. She'll focus on characters that seem to be secondary to a scene, and in doing so makes connections that deepen our understanding of everyone in the movie -- a tactic used to great effect during a birthday party late in the film.
While the movie treats the characters' religious beliefs with nothing but respect, it doesn't shy away from pointing out the occasional ridiculousness of certain behaviors, a prime example being a lesson Bill offers the men on how to satisfy their wives' sexual needs. The scene is a comedic highpoint not because it's mocking their lack of knowledge, but because the awkwardness of the situation can't be ignored.
Farmiga's humanistic approach builds power very slowly, almost imperceptibly. There's a refrain throughout the early part of the film that Corinne isn't musical, that she's never found her instrument. The film's concluding scene is a speech she gives in front of loved ones and the congregation -- she testifies about her belief as well as her doubt. In that moment we see she's found her instrument, that whatever the status of her marriage and her religious conviction, she's finally able to articulate to others the powerful emotions within her. It's a remarkable climax that showcases how good an actress Farmiga is, and illustrates how smartly she's directed her first feature.