The challenge in portraying characters driven by faith, who attribute every success and failing to God and sermonize with dubious assurance about His will, is not to draw them as cartoonish stereotypes.
Hollywood has a history of holding committed spirituality up to ridicule long enough that churchgoers are more inclined to condemn a movie about their beliefs, sight unseen, than embrace it.
Check out the user reviews on the Internet Movie Database, where one critic has dismissed “Higher Ground,” Vera Farmiga’s evenhanded directorial debut about a devout Christian undergoing a personal awakening, as “another skewed hit piece” against the church. “Avoid this movie as if your life depends on it,” writes another.
It pleases me to report, however, that while “Ground” is as flawed as any mortal soul, it is neither condescending nor closed-minded about its heroine and her convictions, religious and otherwise.
The movie, adapted from screenwriter Carolyn Briggs’ 2002 memoir “This Dark World,” follows Corinne, who is found and then “lost” again as she begins to distance herself from the radical, male-dominated community in which she first discovers the joys of salvation.
If anything, the film is so careful not to pass judgment on any facet of Corinne’s life — including her evangelical husband (Joshua Leonard), who is depicted at once as a well-meaning family man and a hot-tempered, hopelessly oblivious chauvinist — that it’s hard to feel too strongly about it one way or another.
It’s easy to understand what attracted Farmiga to the story, and why she chose to play Corinne, who is strong and opinionated, though the men in her church would prefer she keep her epiphanies to herself.
When she strays from the flock, emboldened by a surer sense of self and a short-lived flirtation with her mailman (Sean Mahon), “Higher Ground” celebrates her independence more as evidence of growth than an indictment of her religion.
Whether her new pasture’s grass is greener is open to debate.
To the movie’s credit, it spurns facile conclusions — Corinne’s daily trials are no less rigorous in the absence of ritualized prayer meetings, but her life is her own, to lead as she pleases. Hardly a hollow victory, it nevertheless leaves her alone in a foreign, unpredictable world.
In that sense, Farmiga’s work is uncompromising. Rather than sensationalize Corinne’s journey and feed us obvious emotional cues along the way, the director leaves us nearly as nonplussed as her protagonist.
Here, she has crafted a keenly observed portrait of a life increasingly mired in uncertainty and disillusionment; it’s easy to admire its authenticity, but difficult to glean anything more compelling from its confounding subtext.
Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes
Written by Carolyn Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Directed by Vera Farmiga
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes