Film Review – Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga has firmly established herself as one of the top actresses over the last decade, culminating with her Oscar nomination for Up In The Air. Having reached the pinnacle of acting, it seems like an opportune time to try her hand at something new, moving behind the camera for her directorial debut on the film Higher Ground.
The transition from acting to directing is not uncommon, having been done since the early days of films of the film industry. There have been numerous success stories, from Robert Redford to Clint Eastwood to Ben Affleck. The biggest challenge seems to be developing a unique voice and not falling back on your own acting as a crutch. The filmmakers who have succeed in making the transition have been able to successfully define each of these careers separately. Given Farmiga’s success as an actress, it is hard not feel a sense of pressure to succeed a director too.
Higher Ground is based on the memoir This Dark World: A Story of Faith Found and Lost by Carolyn Briggs, who also contributed as one of the writers of the screenplay. The book was released almost a decade ago, so it has taken a while to make its way to the screen. The story follows a woman named Corinne from childhood to adulthood (played by several actresses at different periods of time, culminating with Farmiga). The story is one of faith, found as a child and lost as an adult. The topic of religion is a touchy one and could ultimately end up being a challenge for the film in finding an audience and financial success. To take on such a challenge for your first film shows both guts and a desire to express yourself artistically, regardless of the challenges it presents. If you are willing to overlook your preconceptions going in, the story is both honest and understandable.
The story in the film is fine, but the structure of the film is a bit challenging. It is broken up into several different segments, each of which focuses on a different period of time in the life of Corinne. The transitions between the sections felt a little bit jarring, as they use a chapter-type system (though presumably it was done to make the jumps in time less confusing) and it took away from the overall flow of the movie. It felt a little bit less like a film and a little bit more like a miniseries. Ultimately, this isn’t a major problem, but might be an example of Farmiga trying to figure out the flow of the movie as director.
There are many funny and touching moments throughout the movie, but it doesn’t really feel like the true storyline kicks in until the final third of the film, when Corinne is confronted by challenges to her faith over the illness of her best friend Annika (played wonderfully by the scene-stealing Dagmara Dominczyk). That portion is heartbreaking, and is in stark contrast to the first two-thirds of the movie, which largely felt like vignettes about how Corinne came to find religion. These vignettes are sometimes amusing and sometimes dramatic, but don’t really give much of an idea of where the plot is going.
The acting in the movie is solid, and as this is one of the potential pitfalls of a first-time director, Farmiga was smart to alleviate this challenge by using a veteran cast. There are some standout performances in this movie, besides the strong work of Farmiga. As I mentioned above, Dominczyk is wonderful as Corinne’s best friend Annika. Not only is she extremely engaging, but at times she steals the show, as her storyline might be the most heartbreaking of all. From the male side, Joshua Leonard gives a solid performance as Corinne’s husband Ethan, who watches his marriage crumble as his wife loses faith, and John Hawkes continues his strong run of late as Corinne’s troubled father C.W., who is emotionally destroyed by the miscarriage of a child. Nina Arianda does a solid job playing Corinne’s rebellious sister Wendy, who is one of the few windows to the world outside of Corinne’s faith.
Visually, the film does a good job of keeping the imagery dynamic. There are scenes such as a bus crash which are very well done for a first-time director. Taking on the challenge of an action scene, albeit a brief one, is something for which we should commend Farmiga. The film does feel a bit washed out in terms of color, with the look being not particularly vibrant, but whether it was intentionally done or a limitation of being an independent film, it is thematically in line with the plot of the movie.
Ultimately, what I take away from the film is that Farmiga is a solid director and understands the fundamentals of film, but she hasn’t yet established a unique style for herself. It will be interesting to see as her career proceeds if she is able to find her own voice. Higher Ground is successful enough that she should be given more opportunities, so one of Farmiga’s biggest challenges going forward will be project selection.
Though I was entertained, I wish this film as a whole had been before more like the work in last third, where it had an interesting and cohesive storyline. Even though it was well-produced throughout, that is where I felt Farmiga really hit her stride.
Final Grade: B-