Higher Ground begins with a baptism. Considering this film tells the story of one woman’s faith journey from childhood through middle age, it may seem strange to begin with the high point of that journey. This choice though reveals this film’s authentic understanding of the Christian life.
Baptism, in many traditions, is considered the moment of rebirth into the resurrective life in Christ. Coming up out of the water, the Christian enters into the historic, dynamic community of the faith. An identity is assumed, bestowed, enacted. The real mystery of this inauguration is that it is not bound in time. Baptism sparks a fire that spreads into the past and the future, redefining everything the baptized knew and everything the baptized will ever know. Life before baptism becomes a process leading up to that redefining moment. Life that follows is the outworking of that redefinition.
Following the baptism scene, the film time jumps to when the woman, Corrine, was a little girl and initially “gave her life to Christ” in response to a preacher’s entreaty in what I assume is some sort of vacation Bible school. Then, the film follows Corrine through life as she goes through intermittent periods of malaise, enthusiasm, and hostility toward God and her faith.
Vera Farmiga both directed and stars in this film. She deserves praise for her work in both capacities. She is an actress capable of taut, restrained performances that open up in key moments to change the very nature of the story being presented. Consider her recent, high profile work in Up in the Air and Source Code. In Up in the Air, Farmiga’s character embodies with unquestionable conviction the kind of life George Clooney’s character thinks he wants right up to the moment when her character is revealed to lead the life he learns he really wants but can never have. In Source Code, Farmiga’s character knows everything about the fate of Jake Gyllanhaal’s character, and it is only as she begins to believe in an alternate future for him that everyone in the story is able to step into a better world. Farmiga seems especially capable of filling characters with the stories of which they are a part.
Farmiga brings all of that skill to her direction of this film. Higher Ground is full of characters building to moments of revelation, and the film is about the build-up more than it is about the revelatory moments. In this, Higher Ground is monumentally better than almost all other films I’ve seen concerned with the complexities of the Christian life. (Secret Sunshine, Of Gods and Men, and Chariots of Fire are other good examples.) Higher Ground is about the journey of faith.
Too often movies depicting the Christian life focus on the “big moments” while the most interesting story would be in the way in which those moments came to pass. For example, consider the recently released Machine Gun Preacher. The audience gets Sam’s personal crisis – baptism – new lifestyle in quick succession. The interesting part of the story would have been Sam’s struggle with his guilt before (and after) his conversion and the difficulty he likely faced in learning to live a more peaceful life. We do get token scenes depicting this process, but they seem included out of obligation and not because the filmmakers believe there is any emotional ore there to be mined. Granted, Machine Gun Preacher is about Sam’s crusade in the Sudan and not his faith journey, but it would have been a better film if it had better interwoven both.
Higher Ground depicts the Christian life as it really is – a daily lived commitment to following Christ through good times and bad, hardship and happiness, over the tops of mountains of doubt and through the most tranquil valleys of blessed assurance. Higher Ground is concerned with all the many facets of living – with marriage and divorce and friendship and siblings and parenting and sex and music and art and authority and intelligence and ignorance and Charismatics and Fundamentalists and food and illness and… the list goes on and on and on. In short, Higher Ground is about everything that makes faith difficult and essential for life.
It is also very funny, very warm, and genuine. I can’t recommend it enough.