To her credit, this is what veteran actress and first-time director Vera Farmiga attempts to grapple with in Higher Ground, her adaptation of the Carolyn S. Briggs memoir This Dark World. The story, set in the 1970s, focuses on the relationship between Corinne (Farmiga) and Ethan (Josh Leonard), her high school sweetheart and eventual husband as Corinne navigates the realm of the spirit, from her summons to the faith to the daily temptations that can lead one off the path of righteousness. The narrative walks along a slow and steady road, with title markers along the way that are likely a bit too spot-on for the more intuitive viewer.
The first call of the spirit (Summons) for Corinne is not the fire-and-brimstone/speaking-in-tongues moment one would expect; instead, we see a too-young girl (McKenzie Turner) peeking around at her peers when the preacher asks for those who are ready to step forward and the less-than-fulfilling announcement when she tells her mother (Donna Murphy) about the experience.
By the time Corinne, now played by Farmiga’s actual younger sister Taissa, meets the teenaged Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), we understand that the longing has set in, the drive to please God, to wanting to be in his presence, but the desire is thwarted not only by her inability to hear or feel the spirit but also by how in tune she is with the mortal world. She has dark (yet oddly pedestrian or maybe childish) visions of sin, but even as we see these hints of her inner life, we come to realize that she is merely lost and searching for some sense of her self in a world of sensuality that is also full of questions.
Is she wrong to imagine the sexual coupling of her mother and the preacher or is that just a sign of her own intuitiveness to the breakdown of the relationship between her parents? Is she a sinner, when while pregnant she daydreams of her best friend, the free-spirited Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) sucking her toes during a simple foot massage, or is this just a fleeting fantasy? Is she falling off the spiritual path or wandering along, as we all are, on the road of life, where nothing is black and white?
Farmiga, as both character and director, hones in on the sensual struggle of one person, a woman in this case who so desires to have God and the spirit enter her open heart yet senses, at times, that nothing waits outside. Corinne also battles the gender-based hierarchy, even in such a small-faith community, when it appears that she might be on the verge of breaking through and ready to provide a witness to her glimpse at grace.
Higher Ground certainly puts its display of faith front and center, but by defining it so narrowly as one person’s troubled journey, it seeks to embrace the deeper mystery and ends up, as all but the most ardently faithful, with no proof. But there is reason to believe that Farmiga has the vision to succeed behind the camera, as she has in front of it. Grade: B