Sundance: Vera Farmiga triumphs in the evangelicals-are-people-too drama 'Higher Ground'

Higher-Ground-VeraImage Credit: Molly HawkeyI don’t agree with most of the attacks on Hollywood by Christian fundamentalists, but there’s one criticism — and it’s a major one — that they’re absolutely right about: When it comes to portraying people of faith, Hollywood is worse than disrespectful — it’s shamefully disinterested. When a comedy like Saved, much as I’m a fan of it, passes for a vital vision of American Christian experience, you know that there’s something missing in our movie culture. (Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is a great film, but it’s about as far from the lives of everyday Christians as you can get.)

Stepping up to the plate of righteousness — at liberal secular Sundance, no less — is the vibrant actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Down to the Bone), who has now become a filmmaker. She directed and stars in Higher Ground, a rich, sprawling, uplifting, disquieting, at once demystifying and mysterious drama about the life and love and heartbreak and faith of one woman in America who’s an evangelical Christian. I almost wrote “who happens to be an evangelical Christian,” but that would be misleading — and false. Higher Ground insists on the deep normality of true believers, but it also portrays their belief as a choice that floods the most mundane moments of daily existence. The upbeat homiletic fervor of church spreads over to domestic chores, to picnics and parties, to innocent flirtation and not-so-innocent flirtation.

Farmiga plays Corrine, who opens her heart to Jesus as a young girl yet doesn’t, at the time, really know what that means. In high school in the ’70s, she dates a Peter Frampton-haired, aviator-framed student rock & roller (his band is called the Renegades), but it isn’t until they get married and have a baby that the spirit seizes her in a moment of terror: His band’s bus crashes, and when their child, feared dead, is saved, it’s but a short step for Corrine to get saved herself, baptized into a tightly knit community of Christians.

We get to know the members of that community, and it’s like a sect of the Amish transplanted to the consumerist suburbs. They have rules and phrases and manners, a way of thinking, for every occasion. For a while, the movie plays off the comic dislocation of middle-class born-again disciples, and I worried that Farmiga, as a filmmaker, had overly exoticized her subject. Corrine’s best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), is a free spirit who speaks in tongues and gives brazen bedroom advice (she favors drawing portraits of her husband’s penis). At moments, it’s all very Christian-sitcom nudge-nudge, but only at moments. Farmiga doesn’t let anyone on screen lapse into caricature. The preacher who’s also a territorial office politician, the burly hippie who leads a men’s group by playing Jesus-approved erotic-advice cassettes (yes, reconciling divinity and desire is a major theme here), and Corrine’s husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), who matures into a laid-back good man who’s so piously controlled, and so deep-down angry about it, that he can’t give Corrine what she needs: These are characters who keep us watching, keep us parsing their emotional psychology.

The movie turns on a paradox. The men and women in Higher Ground have chosen a life in which God is comfort, a security blanket they carry around with them. Yet as the movie goes on, all the discomfort and pain of life leaks in anyway. In one shuddery turn of events, Farmiga reaches for something audacious: A woman with an “inoperable” brain tumor has it operated on. She lives, but loses her faculties. The humane choice? The godly choice? In Higher Ground, the tumult and tragedy of life aren’t overwhelmed by any frosty-faced Joel Osteen sparkle. Even the deepest belief won’t save you from the blues.

Farmiga, working from a script by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, has given herself the kind of role that actresses dream of. She uses her Lady Madonna face to flood Corrine with a searching beatific passion, even as she finds at times that she’s living in a Stepford straitjacket; she has quirks and stirrings that the Christian community can’t contain. She plays Corrine as a striver who cleaves to Christianity yet, in the very purity of that feeling, chafes at its traditionalism. She signed on for faith, for giving herself over to God, yet supplication doesn’t sit will with her. Even when she’s down and out, though, she never wants out. Will evangelicals embrace Higher Ground? Maybe not. Some will say that it’s too cartoonishly anthropological. On some level, they may be right. Yet Higher Ground breaks crucial, sacred ground in American moviemaking. It portrays the evangelical mindset with such heightened curiosity and feeling that although on some level it’s depicting them as “the other,” by the end they’re all of us too.

* * * *

Little-Birds-movieImage Credit: Justin CoitA delinquent-teen movie that surfs along on the dead-end whims and casual cruelties of its central character runs a risk: It can end up looking as random and undisciplined as she is. That’s what makes Little Birds a touching and distinctive achievement. It’s not just another myth of delinquency-as-rebellion. It gets at the nitty-gritty of adolescent aimlessness and despair, and the way that certain kids act that out.

The kid, in this case, is Lily, who lives in a California trailer park along the dirty white shores of the Salton Sea. She’s played by Juno Temple (above, right), who let me say right now deserves her status as festival darling. The daughter of British director Julien Temple (remember him? He was hot in the ’80s; more recently, he made the great Sex Pistols chronicle The Filth and the Fury), Temple is quite petite, with a cascade of frizzy-wavy hair and a face that always looks like it’s about to burst into tears. Even when she smiles, there’s a deliquescent sadness to her, and that’s the poetry of her loveliness.

She really is a little bird, but here’s the thing: As Lily, she’s feisty as hell, like Lisbeth Salander as a tough beach chick in cutoffs. It’s the anger just beneath that angelic crying-face that gives Temple the chance to be a star. Lily, restless and bored, can’t stand her life, and so, dragging along her only friend, the more cautious and rational Alison (Kay Panabaker), she heads to Los Angeles to hook up with the skateboard-punk drifter she met, briefly, in her flat, depressing excuse for a neighborhood. The film’s young writer-director, Elgin James, who developed Little Birds at the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs, shows off the best possibilities of that training: an intuition about how to let scenes unfold so that they keep turning unexpected corners. The movie has a real flow — and, in the scenes with the street kids Lily finds herself drawn to (even when they turn violent), a feel for the blitzed junior nihilism that marked such end-of-the-’70s teen-delinquent flicks as Over the Edge and Foxes.

In a movie like this one, a self-destructive live wire like Lily must hit bottom before she can feel better. There’s a moralistic structure there, but it leaves Lily in a place that’s scarcely more reassuring than the one she first abandoned. That’s what makes Little Birds not just a lesson but, in its rambling way, an organic journey.

Comments (32 total) Add your comment
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  • Jane

    “When it comes to portraying people of faith, Hollywood is worse than disrespectful — it’s shamefully disinterested.” Hollywood is not just disrespectful or disinterested, it is downright hostile. Being someone of faith in Hollywood, I know that when I just mention what I believe (mind you that I never proseletize) people look at me like I’m nuts or make a snide joke, then they go to their Scientology meetings and expect me to treat them with the respect they refuse to give me. Hollywood hyposcrisy as usual.

    • Mr E

      Hmmm. I’m sure not everyone who views your beliefs with suspicion are Scientologists. No doubt many of them are athiests who just happen to find your beliefs bizarre.

      • whatevs

        Regardless of what others actually believe in, I’m sure her point was more about the hostility given toward her.

      • LOL

        The only miracle of Christianity is that anyone would believe it.

      • Jane

        I don’t care if anyone thinks my beliefs are bizarre or if you disagree with them. I’m fine with atheists because at least they are taking a stand. My problem is with people thinking that they should be given a measure of respect that they won’t afford to me. The only reason why I brought up the Scientology thing is because my boss has a tendency to joke to the point of bullying about my beliefs, but then he wants me to have not just respect, but a degree of admiration for his faith. Sorry guy, but give a little, get a little. Give me the same courtesy that I afford you.

    • Amanda Kiwinerd

      Sorry I don’t believe in your imaginary friends. It’s a mental disorder.

    • Whasup

      So what are your religious beliefs??

  • liz


    • SirLizard

      What great insight, liz. Your input is so valuable. Thanks.

  • Jim S

    The bigger problem is that the evangelically-themed movies that get anything approaching a significant release are either apocalyptic (Left Behind) or as subtle as a sledgehammer to the forehead (Fireproof, Facing the Giants).

    There are many very good movies that treat religions and their followers with respect, but it’s because their faith is treated as a valuable part of a larger whole…not the entire message.

    • Sarah

      I’d love to know the titles of these “many very good movies” of which you speak.

  • whatevs

    It’s a shame that real Christians don’t get the same attention that all the crazy people who say their Christians do. I guess it’s much more interesting that way.

  • Dave

    It’s not surprising that the only film that captures “real” Christianity would be made by (presumably) an outsider. When Christians do it themselves, it’s usually ham-handed, and almost always incompetent. The vast majority of believers have no interest in forcing their beliefs in your face, and spend their lives avoiding the situations the Westboro church embraces. Films made for Christian audiences are no interest to anyone else, while Christian films made for “broad audiences” are often ridiculed for poor production values and worse acting. I have yet to see anything successfully shoot the middle, but if this is as sympathetic portrayal as you’re saying, it could be the first.

  • Ugly Jenny

    As a Christian, my interested in this movie is piqued. I couldn’t agree more that the portrayal of Christians in Hollywood is extremely hostile, but unfortunately expected. Probably one of the few movies that depicts people of faith the most realistically is Lars and the Real Girl.
    I wish more movies will depict Christians as normal, functioning people of society who happen to live by a certain faith and not as hypocritical zealots who claim to be perfect. If Christianity teaches its believers anything, is that they are not perfect not that they are. I, along with many Christians out there will be the first to admit that they are not perfect, but only strive to better themselves.

  • DN

    The more devout the Christian, the more intolerant. That’s simply the way it is. If YOU don’t accept the word of Jesus Christ, YOU are going to hell.

    For a town where people spend time with all walks of life in order to make a performance as real as possible for a film, would you embrace a group that can be as intolerant as Evangelicals? Their mission is to convert everyone. How nice.

    Liberals are known to be very accepting of everyone, conservatives, which is where the predominance of the religiously zealot reside, do not.

    • Amanda Kiwinerd

      Amen! Haha!

    • Dave

      This isn’t to defend the methods of the vocal minority of Evangelicals (which are at best obnoxious and worst psychotic), but they’re taught to think of it as seeing a pedestrian about to get run down by a truck. Would you say or do anything? What if the stakes were even higher? Granted, it’s been taken to extremes (like every way of thinking, not limited to religion) but that’s how it is. Hang around some who are letting their lives–not their words–speak for them, and you may see that they’re not as broadly intolerant as you suggest. More likely, you’ll ignore this comment or state another insulting absolute.

    • Frank

      Your last paragraph contradicts the first.

    • Jennifer

      DN, that is a very broad generalization to say the more devout the Christian, the more intolerant. I wonder how many Christians you know. There are plenty of Christians who are tolerant as there plenty of liberals who are intolerant of people who don’t see the world as they. One very liberal friend of mine told me she could accept everyone except born-again Christians. Is that real tolerance? It would be nice to see a movie where Christians are treated as regular people who happen to see the world through the lens of faith. I’m not sure if the movie here does that (seems to be a little obsessed with sex at least in the review) but it sounds interesting.

    • Paul

      I am enjoying the uplifting experience of basking in your acceptance of everyone (except Christians?)

  • Yolanda C Lewis

    As a Christian I would like to see us portrayed more in films, but that’s up to the Christian filmmakers who know how to make edgy films with a Christian slant that don’t alienate non-Christians.

  • Jake

    You know what’s strange? More atheist liberal indy film fans will see this movie then the Christians who are typically herded up to go see the latest Kirk Cameron religious pic.

  • Kettle77

    I saw Higher Ground at Sundance and found it dreadful.. painful… boring… In the Q&A after Vera said it was about self-discovery and could have been set in the world of golf just as easily. Huh? Every moment is about religion, beliefs, getting closer to God. Ugh… And I’m actually pretty religious myself!

  • Tom

    The only thing about Christians, is, that they figure I’m going to burn in Hell for eternity and are glad to tell me all about it. Kind’a silly assed don’t yah think?

    • jim

      Tom, the only thing about dogs, is, that they figure they can pee just about everywhere, and are glad about it. Kind’a sill assed don’t yah think? The media should be one of our best venues to free speech. What is with the intolerance in Hollywood and Academia these days? I recommend “Expelled” for the those introspective enough to handle it.

  • Neil Pais

    I cant beleive so many folks just can’t accept n beleive what they want to. Ignore em’ rest that you do not concern you. N do not judge a community or a person by their beleifs…Sheesh..

  • Neil Pais

    I cant beleive so many folks just can’t accept n beleive what they want to. Ignore em’ rest that do not concern you. N do not judge a mass community or a person by their beleifs…Sheesh.

  • DCnPA

    I’m a Christian who can defend her beliefs without jamming it down anyone’s throat. I won’t allow anyone to jam their beliefs down my throat either. It is true that Christians are called to share (tell, speak about, explain) what & why we believe the good news of Jesus Christ; but, no where in our doctrines does it say we are to force anyone to listen to us. As with any other group however, there are bound to be extremists & zealots who make it seem like “everybody” is just like them. Saying “all” Christians are this or that is like saying all White people belong to the KKK or all Black people are militant or all Asians are brainiacs. Any intelligent person knows not to let one apple make the whole bunch. The horrible truth is it can be unpopular to be a Christian. To those of us who are, I believe we’ve already accepted the fact of humiliation & degra-dation from others who believe differently. It is not easy holding on to a belief that is constantly beraged with hostility, attacked as childish, belittled as comical, or otherwise spoken ill of; and yet, still believe. However, I’d rather stand alone as a believer than to be with the masses as a non-believer.

    As for Hollywood, there are doses of Christianity out there & more films have made their way to mainstream media. Hollywood however,is a money-making machine, and whatever makes money will get exploited. Whether the subject matter is the KKK, Malcom X, gays, lesbians, cannibalism, history, fiction, non-fiction, Christianity Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, slavery, child abuse, crime, death or anything else; it’s always, always going to be about the money. The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the oil, so the audiences dictate what they want to see. Christians do not look to Hollywood to validate their Christian beliefs. Hollywood on the other hand, does look for subject matter that makes money, and it doesn’t care what genre it belongs to.

  • Chris

    Is this movie out yet ? Whats the release date ?

    • Scott Riggi

      Next Thursday…

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