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HIGHER GROUND (2011) (***1/2)

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Every time I see a film this good about faith I always say there should be more films about faith. I'm not talking about preachy, simplistically moralistic religious tracts, but tales about a person's walk through life and faith with warts and all. Vera Farmiga, who most people will know from UP IN THE AIR, is a smart actress and has made a smart directing debut in adapting Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir for the screen. This is a film about how a woman comes to faith and how she brings it through her life.

Farmiga stars as Corinne, a woman during the 1970s who struggles with her faith. As a child (McKenzie Turner), she didn't have much exposure to religion. The most she got was when her flashy mother Kathleen (Donna Murphy, TANGLED) dumped her in vacation Bible school and flirted with Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED) when she came to pick her up. As a teen, Corinne (Taissa Farmiga, TV's AMERICAN HORROR STORY) is always writing, which draws the attention of wanna-be rocker Ethan (as teen Boyd Holbrook, TV's THE BIG C & as adult Joshua Leonard, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT). In fast secession, she is pregnant, married and a struggling mother. After a near tragedy, Corinne and Ethan join the "Jesus Freaks" in town and never turn back.

In their Christian community, Corinne embraces her faith with a full heart, but she is a thinker and with thinkers come doubts. She becomes close friends with Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO), the most free of the women. The Russian immigrant draws pictures of her husband's penis to spice up their sex life and talks in tongues to get closer to God. Corinne wants that for herself, but it doesn't come that easy, especially with Ethan, who has fallen into the dogma of their patriarchal church. In this world, Corinne feels confined by restrictions in her dress, counseling of other women and even thoughts. And even though Pastor Bill (Norbet Leo Butz, DAN IN REAL LIFE) stresses that the men need to meet their wives sexual needs, it's a lesson Ethan has failed to follow.

Watch how Corinne's faith affects her relationship with her sister Wendy (Nina Arianda, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), who has a carefree, hippie lifestyle. Corinne's marriage is boring, but turns volatile like the relationship her mother and father CW (John Hawkes, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE) had. That marriage ended in divorce, but Corinne's faith influences how she approaches her failing marriage. But Corinne's faith is most rocked when it comes to the tragic fate of Annika. Death would have been easier to understand as God's plan.

Farmiga has brought together a great cast, working from Briggs and Tim Metcalfe's script. She brings the same authenticity that marks every one of her performances. She understands these people and never once talks down to them. Farmiga made a great decision in convincing her younger sister Taissa to act in the film as the younger version of her character. Taissa not only shows natural talent, but seamlessly works to transition from one period in time to the next, because of how closely she resemble her older sibling. Irwin is always a joy to see and his smarmy preacher is so dead on in style and approach I felt I was back in my own Bible camp experience. Look for a brilliant moment between Hawkes and Murphy during one of their grandchildren's birthday parties. Their non-verbal communication comments on their relationship and also hints at the pitfalls ahead for Corinne and Ethan.

While faith is the central theme, this film plays it straight and shows how faith transforms and informs its characters. This is a character piece that looks inside a religious community and how the dynamics of the group affect its main character Corrine. She entered marriage before she found religion. She was young and so many of the things she wanted from life had to be put on hold. So how does someone reconcile a less than opportune marriage and a faith that demands one not to divorce? What if you put your whole heart into something and never feel the joy you expect? What do you do when everyone around you has found something you can't seem to find? The answer is faith. But faith in what? Farmiga has enough faith in her audience to let them come up with their own answers.

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
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