Wrestling with Faith in a Silly, Annoying Way
Release Date: August 26, 2011
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard,
Dagmara Dominiczyk, Norbert
Leo Butz, Michael Chernus,
Bill Irwin, John Hawkes, Donna
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Runtime: 109 minutes
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics/Sony
Director: Vera Farmiga
Executive Producer: Jonathan Burkhart, Brice Dal
Farra, Lauren Munsch
Producer: Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey,
Carly Hugo, Matthew Parker,
Writer: Carolyn Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Address Comments To:Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcia Bloom
Sony Pictures Classics (Sony Pictures Entertainment)
550 Madison Avenue, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10022
Phone: (212) 833-8833; Fax: (212) 833-8844
Web Page: www.sonyclassics.com; Email: Sony_Classics@spe.sony.com
Based on the memoir “This Dark World” by Carolyn Briggs, the story follows the fictionalized tale of Corinne, a woman who has a conversion experience at Vacation Bible School when she’s a little girl, but grows up without a relationship with God. After an unwed teenage pregnancy in the late 1960s with Ethan, a rock musician, they marry. While riding on Ethan’s rock music bus to a gig, the couple and their baby almost drown. Since Corinne cried out to God before the baby was saved, she and Ethan figure that God saved them. Corrine and Ethan convert to Christianity and get baptized in a small contemporary church of “Jesus freaks,” led by a bearded pastor named Bill.
Having been drawn, as a young person, to controversial books like LORD OF THE FLIES, Corinne eventually finds herself, as she gets older, not fully at ease with her new spiritual life. She often wars with theological issues such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and women teaching in the church.
Her faith is further tested when her best friend in the church, a goofy woman with a fiery sense of humor and an independent spirit, has brain surgery because of a tumor. Although the surgery saves her friend’s life, she’s left in a vegetative mental state. While other members of her church celebrate the woman’s healing, Corrine can’t help but be disillusioned.
At the same time, Corinne grows distant from Ethan as they raise three children, two older girls and one young boy. Corinne, however, seems to find it hard to express her dissatisfaction to Ethan, much less the problems she’s having with the teaching in their church. The movie implies that their sex life has never been that great, and Corinne is desperate for more intellectual stimulation than Ethan can give. In one scene, Ethan tries to kiss Corinne in the kitchen, but she keeps turning her head away.
Things come to a crisis while they watch one of their children play soccer. Ethan tries to get at what’s bothering Corinne, but she keeps ignoring him. They get into a brief shouting match, and, still not getting much of a response from his wife, Ethan starts to choke Corinne, but he stops before things go too far, she runs off and he prays.
They try marriage counseling, but the counselor they’re referred to takes Ethan’s side and tries to admonish Corinne that she’s headed toward apostasy and Hell if she doesn’t change. Instead of trying to talk things out, Corinne merely leaves, and she separates from Ethan.
While living alone, Corinne runs into her mailman at the library. The two seem to share the intellectual bond Corinne craves, including a love for poetry, but the mailman’s clearly a secular guy. Then, she sees that the mailman actually has a wife he didn’t mention to Corinne, and she walks away in disgust before even one date occurs.
At the end of the story, Corinne is still wrestling with faith. She tells the congregation she’s still “waiting for Jesus to make Himself at home” in her life. Despite some conflict with the pastor, she tells him that she admires how strong his faith is, but she’s still searching. The last shot of her indicates that Corrine is more at peace with her doubts than with her faith.
Despite a couple good scenes in the first half and some good scenes toward the end, HIGHER GROUND is very uneven. As played by Vera Farmiga, who also directs, Corinne can be a very annoying person. For instance, she sometimes makes sarcastic remarks and has strange fantasies. In one scene, for instance, her best friend is massaging her feet when she’s pregnant and Corinne has a lesbian fantasy of the woman sucking her toes. Also, after Corinne is baptized in the river by Pastor Bill, she starts getting freaked out by the fish swimming and touching her in the river, which completely undercuts what could have been a great, positive scene of Christian faith and practice. In fact, the movie is often undercutting its Christian scenes as if the filmmakers are afraid of allowing their movie to make any completely positive statement about Christianity or the Bible. It’s only toward the end, when Ethan and his three children sing a Christian song in front of the congregation, that the movie really gives viewers a completely positive Christian vibe. Then, of course, the Corinne character has to ruin the moment by, after praising her children, explaining to the congregation where she’s at in her own walk and why she has to leave them.
In addition to all this, HIGHER GROUND never takes the time to develop what Ethan and Corinne’s relationship truly is like before they grow apart. Also, there are no good scenes with them and their children until the end, in a scene where the family celebrates the son’s seventh birthday. In the scene, Corinne and Ethan are separated and the children convince them to re-enact their wedding cake photos. They do so, and the children break out in a chant, demanding their parents kiss each other, but Ethan and Corinne can’t bring themselves to accede to their children’s vociferous request, much less find it in their hearts to reconcile. This scene is probably the best one in the whole movie, but it comes way too late. That’s a sign of both poor writing and poor direction, if not poor editing.
Finally, the movie seems more interested in the questions it proposes about life and all of its pains, rather than the answers that are found in the Word of God through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Corrine walks out on her church (and her husband, who’s comfortable in that church) after hearing the Word for decades. This begs the question, was her faith in Jesus ever truly authentic? It also provides a cautionary tale for believers to let the Word have an effect in their lives, to be both hearers AND doers of the Word.
This failure is particularly clear in one scene toward the end, where a distraught Corinne sits in her car and emotionally asks Jesus to help her find some answers. Instead of going to her Bible, however, Corinne clearly only wants some kind of emotional, Holy Spirit “magic” divorced from God’s Word.
Ultimately, Corrine’s story feels like the tragic example used in James 1:23-24, “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” As believers, we need to be the person in James 1:25, “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does.”
HIGHER GROUND would have received only one star from MOVIEGUIDE® were it not for some of the good scenes that occur in the third act. As it is, the two stars it does get are not anything to write home about. Other critics are being WAY too charitable toward this confused, unsatisfying movie. The idea that it treats Christianity fairly is a lie. After researching the original book on which it’s based, it becomes clear that the book’s author really didn’t investigate her faith, much less the Bible, as thoroughly and as seriously as she should have done. She belonged to an idiosyncratic church with views reminiscent of Christian Science and extreme, emotional Pentecostalism that limited God to the miraculous. So, now she has retreated to an opposite kind of “fundamentalism” that lumps together many Evangelical, conservative denominations into the aberrant notions that her church apparently fostered.
Regarding the movie itself, it also must be noted that probably the goofiest thing Corinne’s best friend does is draw pictures of her husband’s private parts. In one scene, when Corinne is at her friend’s house taking care of her after her operation, the camera pans across several graphic penis drawings on the friend’s bedroom wall. Clearly, this shot is excessive, as is the movie’s frequent sarcasm about faith and life, and its clear neglect to truly investigate the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles. The movie also has some foul language and two scenes with drug references.
Ultimately, HIGHER GROUND seems to have a feminist, pagan worldview that’s (at the very least) uncomfortable about showing all the benefits of true Christian, biblical faith. Clearly, the lead actress, Vera Farmiga, should have hired a more experienced director to helm this pet project instead of directing it herself. Actors directing and editing themselves is always an iffy proposition. In this case, we don’t think it worked. The filmmakers also should have taken the original story told by the real-life author with a grain of salt and probed deeper into the woman’s problems with her faith, her church and her husband. Emotions can betray us. That’s why Jesus tells us to love God with all of our minds (Matthew 22:37).
HIGHER GROUND is very uneven and seems more interested in the questions it poses about life and faith instead of the answers the Bible gives. Corrine walks out on her church and her husband. This begs the question, was her faith in Jesus ever truly authentic? Christians need to be both hearers AND doers of God’s Word. HIGHER GROUND also contains some lewd content, excessive sarcasm about faith and excessive nudity.