Higher Ground (R) (109 min.) — Oscar-nominated actor Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) makes an assured debut as a director with this languid character study of a woman questioning her Christian faith. Not rebelling against it. That would be what's expected by true believers lacking of faith in the way they're represented by secular cinema.
Higher Ground doesn't poke fingers or fun at God or followers but does portray the conflict that may arise after too many prayers are left unanswered. Farmiga also stars as Corinne, a character based on writer Carolyn S. Briggs, whose memoir The Dark World inspires the screenplay. Corinne is part of a close-knit community of Christians for whom every action should be sanctified. She's content but can't quite capture the rapture.
Farmiga traces this barely fulfilled life in stages: the child who gets baptized because it's what her friends do; a teenager (played by Farmiga's sister Taissa) who marries pregnant, enduring a near-tragedy that she's convinced God avoided; and grown-up Corinne when faith begins to fray. It's a quiet story, without many emotional outbursts and no villains. Parts of Higher Ground are dull, honestly. But the movie always feels honest about its subject.
The acting is sublimely natural, with only a few moments sliding into faint satire unlike the rest of the movie. There's a nice performance by Dagmara Dominczyk (wife of former St. Petersburg resident Patrick Wilson) as Corinne's best pal whose own crisis fuels her girlfriend's. At times Higher Ground takes on the unhurried, enlightening pace of cinema verite. During others you wish something — anything — dramatic would happen.
But part of the film's success lies in resisting that impulse, focusing on internal drama in expressions and silences. The backseat role of women in this subculture is obvious yet doesn't spark revolt, as it wouldn't in such circumstances. Farmiga patiently lays out everything without firm answers, in a movie that like Corinne feels a calling just beyond its grasp. B (BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg)
Steve Persall, Times film critic