Most movies about faith tend to swing towards one of two extremes: mocking or manipulating. Either they poke fun at a religion and its followers or attempt to convert you. Rarely does one find, and maintain, a healthy medium. Gingerly, and largely without faltering, Higher Ground successfully walks the balance beam — tightrope, really — of a realistic, even-handed portrayal of faith and those striving after it. Sincerity surmounts sap or cynicism: the film neither condescends nor preaches. Directed by its leading star, Vera Farmiga (of Up In the Air fame), the film’s plot, dialogue, and character development are punctuated with a rich candor that allows the viewer to not only relate to its characters, but to like them — to root for them — in spite of their flaws.
The plot follows the spiritual journey of Corinne, who is first introduced as a young girl. The fresh-faced, pigtailed six year-old is plagued with parents mulling in a messy marriage marred by a miscarriage. She starts exploring faith amidst that heartache and is declared “saved” by her used-car-salesman-esque pastor when she raises her hand during an altar call at her vacation Bible school. As Corinne grows older, family conflict intensifies, and she seeks solace not in Christianity, but in her rock-musician boyfriend, Ethan. Pregnant, they wed. After a near-death experience, they turn to faith. Years pass and they become a deeply entrenched in a small evangelical church community.
The congregants are earnest in their striving and support each other in their spiritual walks. They are a close-knit group: they eat meals together, pray with one another, discuss marital/sexual issues in a frank manner, sing songs together at house-gatherings, visit one another in the hospital, study the Bible together late into the night, confess their sins to one another. The church members participate in these intimate relationships, but mostly avoid blatant hypocrisy or any overtly creepy cult-ish qualities. They are close friends, consistently encouraging one another in their pursuit of God and godliness. They are joyful and genuine in said pursuit, but they are human, and therefore flawed. The pastor and his wife admonish Corinne on a few notable occasions; for “nearly preaching” (a task, in their community, reserved for those with penises) and for wearing an off-the-shoulder dress that might “cause a brother to stumble.” Their rebukes are private and gentle, but rebukes nonetheless. Those scenes are likely to leave audience members slightly cringing, as they do Corinne.
Corinne differs from her church family in that she not only strives, she yearns too. She longs to learn, grow, and mature in her faith; thus, unlike most of her fellow believers, she wrestles and questions. Her best friend, Annika (played by Dagmara Dominczyk), is a passionate Christian who also holds a more free-thinking approach to faith. She speaks in tongues (a practice frowned upon by the church), talks openly about sexuality, and prays without inhibition. Their friendship is characterized by laughter and honesty. They share their true thoughts and feelings, good and bad — doubts and convictions, insecurities and joys. They pray together constantly. Though often cited in reference to marriage, the following verses from Ecclesiastes ring true of their friendship:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Eccl. 4:9 – 12)
Indeed, Higher Ground speaks to the significant role authentic community plays in supporting an individual’s faith in all its mood-swings, varying stages and shades, and complexities. When Annika suffers from a debilitating sickness, Corinne’s spiritual struggle heightens. ‘Annika’ is Hebrew for ‘grace’ or ‘favor;’ when Corinne loses her primary source of fellowship, accountability, and encouragement, she begins to fall from grace. Her threefold cord, now twofold, steadily unravels. She does not wrestle with the age-old question of “why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” so much as she merely misses having her sister in Christ rejoice when she rejoices and weep when she weeps (cf. Romans 12:15).
Nothing is black and white here, though. Corinne doesn’t just leave the church and start a new, gloriously free, decadent, fun-filled secular life. In the film, As A.O. Schwartz writes in a New York Times review, “the secular world has its own compromises and blind spots. …What faith and doubt have in common is that both are hard work, and the hard-won wisdom of Higher Ground is that human nature does not necessarily distinguish between saints and sinners.”
Higher Ground‘s strength is rooted largely in its ability to capture the raw grayness where faith doubt bleed into one another. It captures this frequently-overlooked terrain by showing — not telling outright — the audience what its characters are thinking and feeling. The film relies heavily on subtlety to communicate: a hand on a knee, eye contact, a slight grimace, a brief hesitation before a response. Here, humanity stems from nuance. There are no caricatures. As a result, Higher Ground does not instruct you what to think. It leaves room for viewers to wrestle with their own interpretations and predictions, ultimately encouraging them to forgo picking at a speck in their neighbor’s eye in order to first react to the plank in their own.
All to say: Higher Ground is sohotrightnow. Go see it.