After her parents break up in the wake of a family tragedy, the teenage Corinne (Taissa Farmiga) captures the interest of Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), the handsome front man of the school rock band, The Renegades, and before long is getting married and pregnant - but not in that order. One night, driving the Renegades band bus to a gig with Corinne and their baby Abby on board, Ethan swerves off the road, but tragedy is narrowly averted. Ethan and Corinne feel that God has saved them, and is calling on them to change their lives and they find their way to a community of evangelical Christians. Adult Corinne (Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) fully embrace the strictures of the community, more so than Corinne's new friend, the sexy, brash and passionate Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk). But when Annika is struck down by an illness, it triggers a slumbering discontent within Cortinne. As she withdraws from her faith, Corinne withdraws from Ethan, as well. Conflicts are magnified by the church's doctrine of wifely subservience.
Review by Louise Keller:
Faith and doubt have equal footing in Vera Farmiga's dense and sensitive exploration of life, love and spiritual enlightenment. An evangelical community is the setting in which Carolyn S. Briggs's memoir This Dark World plays out and where we follow the spiritual coming of age of the story's protagonist, Corinne, played by Farmiga in her directing debut. The narrative is slow (read, boring) and I often wondered where everything was leading, the film relying on its slice of life approach to subtly convey the all important mood and claustrophobic religious tone.
Corinne's journey begins as a young girl (played by McKenzie Turner), when she raises her hand in bible class to indicate she feels the calling of the lord. As an impressionable teenager (played by Farmiga's younger sister, Taissa), Corinne starts writing poetry, documenting her disappointments and starts a relationship with the long-haired, guitar-playing Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). Life on the road with a young baby and pot smoking musicians takes a faith-influenced turn after an incident and suddenly the adult Corinne and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are part of an intensely religious community who sit around singing hymns and religious songs, praise the lord and live their lives in a commune-like existence. One of the most curious scenes shows the community's men (mostly with long beards and long hair) listening to an audio tape that describes clitoral stimulation and how to keep their wives sexually satisfied.
There's a claustrophobic feeling about many of the scenes in which the insular lifestyle is portrayed and over time, as Corinne is quashed by the elders, she struggles to feel the closeness of God. The options are clearly defined: stay inside the church with the blessing of God or go outside with the dogs. She is drawn to her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), whose lively free-spirited ways are a breath of fresh air. She speaks a kind of gibberish she professes is a prayer language and delights in eroticism by sketching variations of her husband's penis. Corinne's sex life is clearly reaching a dead end, as is her marriage, as the pressures of her inner beliefs and the world around her collide.
It's a memorable if obtuse debut for Farmiga and a fascinating insight into a blinkered society whose philosophies seem to be at odds with its aspirations. I felt slightly brainwashed by the end and couldn't wait to head into the sunlight.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's probably an important lesson for a first time director: if you're filming an adaptation of an author's book (especially one that is autobiographical), keep the author at arm's length from the screenplay. It's too tempting to try and squeeze the whole book into two hours, but the result is a loss of control over the essence of the story that the film should tell.
The guts of this story is the realisation by Corinne (Vera Farmiga) that her deep faith has not delivered either spiritual satisfaction nor temporal peace and happiness. By the time she asks 'where are you, god?' she has reached despair. And so have we; the film immerses us in the evangelical Christianity of the community where Corinne and her family are swamped by piety but hopelessly lost as human beings. It's repetitious and simply boring for anyone not touched by the holy spirit.
What makes it worse is that this all comes after a concertina telling of Corinne's backstory since before she was born, as her mother gets pregnant to a charming (but talent-less) musician.
There are so many jumps and so much superfluous information is retained in the screenplay from the book that we are dazed before we get to the story of grown up Corinne - which is where the drama should focus. It is here in this tight-knit (read insular) community that Corinne's doubts begin to eat away at her. She doesn't at first know what it is that's turning her off her husband, uneasy feelings that are magnified when her Jesus-loving but earthy and feisty friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) talks about sex and explains how she draws on her man's penis.
Annika's sudden illness accelerates Corinne's fall from faith, as the contrast between vibrant friend and vegetative patient slams her heart.
Much too late (both for Corinne and the audience) the film sharpens its focus and closes in on Corinne's decision to escape the claustrophobic embrace of both her husband and her church. Yet even here, as we canter towards a resolution, Farmiga seems unable to unleash the emotional power to give the audience a satisfactory resolution.
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HIGHER GROUND (M)
CAST: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Nina Arianda, Donna Murphy, Taissa Farmiga, Bill Irwin
PRODUCER: Claude Del Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Matthew Parker, Jon Rubinstein
DIRECTOR: Vera Farmiga
SCRIPT: Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe (memoir This Dark World, by Briggs)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael McDonough
EDITOR: Colleen Sharp
MUSIC: Alec Puro
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sharon Lomofsky
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 6, 2011