It is hard to get into a discussion about a film where religion is one of the larger backdrops in it without getting into a larger debate on spirituality. That said, one could understand or even empathize with how some could find religion as some sort of personal justification such as what we discover in Higher Ground. And seeing the justification the protagonist uses, along with the subsequent dilemmas she faces, makes for one of the more underrated films of 2011.
Tim Metcalfe (The Haunting in Connecticut) adapted the Caroline Briggs memoir which Vera Farmiga stars in and directs. The Up in the Air actress plays Corinne, a wife and mother is a devoted religious household. We do not see her for the first few minutes of the film, as Corinne is first shown as a child, then as a teenager. As an aside, it is stunning to see the resemblance the teenaged Corinne has to the grown up Farmiga until you realize that Farmiga's younger sister (21 years to be exact) plays the part. Corinne is approached by Ethan, the leader of a rock band, and the two strike up a relationship that eventually becomes a marriage shortly after Ethan impregnates her. When a bus crash almost takes the life of their infant daughter, the couple decides to devote their lives to God, raising two more children within the church. As Corinne grows older (and becomes the elder Farmiga), she starts to question her faith, and her marriage to Ethan (Joshua Leonard, The Shaggy Dog). She becomes friends with Annika (Dagmara Domenczyk, Running With Scissors), a friend within the church who helps her with smaller personal conflicts, but when Annika has surgery for a brain tumor, seeing the ways the church uses her ordeal to promote the Lord's way becomes a problem for her. As Corinne saw her parents CW (John Hawkes, Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Kathleen (Donna Murphy, The Nanny Diaries) eventually divorce, their past also plays a role in any decisions she may make, along with any repercussions the church may invoke.
What may make the premise in Higher Ground work is that the film does not portray religion as one where a small group of people came to Corinne and Ethan and suggested that they become Christians. They were young kids who dodged a potentially devastating bullet, and decided to 'get religion.' Maybe it was because they had no other option at that moment in life, and in lieu of trying to find a reasonable explanation, this was the life they decided to take up for themselves. It is also convincing enough to set up the second half of the film, which is Corinne questioning her faith, her role within the church and her family.
Corinne's friendship with Annika is one where she finds her horizons broadened ever so slightly, but when that friendship is taken away from her, Corinne tends to feel lost, and some of her rebellions are both strange and a little pitiful. Honestly, what else would you expect her to do after seeing her life unfold as it does? Soon though, these rebellions have some venom in them, particularly during the scenes with her and Ethan. Through all of this, Farmiga conveys it extremely well, giving you a high level of authenticity and genuine emotion when she portrays Corinne. Her supporting cast is a mix of talented actors and actual friends and family (her mother appears in a scene when Corinne and Ethan entertain some seniors at a retirement home) along with "real" people. Seeing an ensemble like that in this film and other films like The Apostle and Sling Blade makes suspension of disbelief all the easier. However, Farmiga drives the car in this film, and it would not surprise me if she received some sort of nomination during awards season for her work in the film.
As a director, Farmiga is up to the task, and allows the performances to be the showcase in the film, providing gentle close-ups to a look or moment of action to help reinforce any internal tension or dilemma. One of the more touching but slightly painful scenes plays out late in the film, during one of the children's birthdays, when Corinne and Ethan are asked by the kids to reenact their wedding cake picture. In that several minutes and spanning two generations, we see nostalgia, contemplation and regret, and Farmiga shows it all with just the right lengths, without it being trite or hammy. She avails herself well in Higher Ground and I hope she does more of this in the future.
It may be easy or convenient for people to dismiss religious people as nuts (and some of them are, undoubtedly). But Higher Ground tells the story of someone who discovers religion and I think eventually still possesses it, but on her terms. Whether you agree or not with the backdrop, the story in front of it is a lot more fascinating, and Farmiga's direction and performance are exceptional.
Higher Ground is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and in high definition with the AVC codec, with the results being strong. The film looks intentionally devoid of image detail and this softness is conveyed effectively, and later as the characters grow older, the lighting is less soft and more of an accurate image is displayed, but the disc handles the subtle changes with excellent accuracy. The color palette is reproduced well without over saturation or image noise, and flesh tones look accurate to boot. A better than expected effort from the first-time director.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround for the film, and again there is some good source material replicated on Blu-ray. Dialogue is consistent in the center channel and requires little compensation, low-end fidelity was active on the bus crash and there is a small layer of ambient noise that helps convey a convincing immersion level for the listener, all the more so when Ethan's band plays early on in the film. The lossless track does not have a hot to do outside of a few selected moments, but it handles the load nicely.
A decent amount of bonus material here for you to enjoy, starting with a commentary with Farmiga, Leonard and producer Renn Hawkey, who is also Farmiga's husband. The track is pretty soft-spoken, with Farmiga starting the track on her own, discussing how a scene was designed and marveling at some of the subtleties within the actors, and occasional frustrations with the productions (particularly when shooting the non-actors in the film). Leonard and Hawkey's respective appearances bring some levity to the tone of the track. It tends to lose a bit of momentum as it goes along, but is worth the time.
Next up is "The Substance of Things Hoped For" (18:52), which serves as a featurette for the film. In it, Farmiga talks about the task of directing, made all the more taxing by her pregnancy which she was going through during filming. The cast and crew shares their thoughts on Farmiga the actor, director and person, and on the respective characters they play in the film. The visual style and story themes are even covered. All in all, it's a good piece. Six deleted scenes follow (6:54), some of which include more Hawkes goodness and some funny moments. Speaking of funny moments, two outtakes (:44) include some flubs. Two deleted and extended scenes (5:31) include some interesting tweaks to the shots, while a production diary (2:36) includes some behind the scenes looks at one of the deleted scenes. The film's trailer (2:05) and a standard definition copy of the film on a second disc (where the screen grabs come from) completes the package.
Vera Farmiga has turned in one of the better film efforts as a first-time director in Higher Ground, to say nothing of a performance that has humor, slight bouts of satire, passion, doubt and a whole range of other emotions going through it as her character is on screen. With solid technical qualities and better than expected bonus material, this is definitely worth seeing for her work, with a recommendation to buy for those who feel a personal relation to the character or material.