“Higher Ground” (2011). Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Michael Chernus, Norbert Leo Butz, Barbara Tuttle, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Nina Arianda, Sean Mahon, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga, Boyd Holbrook, Kaitlyn Rae King, McKenzie Turner, Taylor Schwencke. Director: Vera Farmiga. Screenplay: Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe. Book: This Dark World, by Carolyn S. Briggs. www.sonyclassics.com/higherground/
Often in life we’re asked to take things on faith, a practice for which we’re given no handbook at birth, leaving us to find our own way. That frequently makes for an intriguing journey, one that tests us on many fronts, especially when it comes to understanding and embracing that core issue of faith. But no matter what path we choose, it always helps to have inspiration to draw from, and one particularly thoughtful example of this is offered up in the new spiritual drama, “Higher Ground.”
Corinne Miller (Vera Farmiga) is a woman on a mission to find herself. Unfortunately, she spends much of her decades-long journey seemingly lost in a fog, often sincerely believing that she’s found the answers she seeks only to discover later—and repeatedly—that “truth” can be a rather elusive commodity.
Corinne’s odyssey is a largely spiritual quest. Having grown up in a household without much of a religious compass (her parents, Kathleen (Donna Murphy) and CW (John Hawkes), show little interest in the subject, especially after her mother suffers a heartbreaking miscarriage), Corinne is left to fend for herself spiritually. She grapples with church-related issues, first as a child (McKenzie Turner) and later as a teen (Taissa Farmiga), hoping that they’ll somehow magically fill the void in her life. She looks to the teachings of an affable local minister, Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin), for inspiration, but her enthusiasm is often lukewarm at best, as if she’s just going through the motions and not really grasping what she’s supposed to get out of the experience. Her efforts are further sidetracked by a healthy curiosity of worldly matters, such as interests in rock ’n roll, “questionable” literature and boys, particularly her beau and future husband, Ethan (Boyd Holbrook and Joshua Leonard, respectively).
Corinne’s journey takes a dramatic turn, however, when a potentially disastrous personal tragedy produces an unexpectedly miraculous outcome, prompting her and Ethan to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a life of devotion, a vow that culminates in their initiation into a fundamentalist Christian community. Through this sacred indoctrination, it appears Corinne has finally found true happiness and contentment in her life. Or has she?
Sometimes Corinne seems genuinely filled with the spirit of Jesus and the Divine Creator, but, at other times, she appears utterly perplexed, as if she’s missing out on something she believes she’s supposed to be experiencing. This is especially true when spending time with her friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), who frequently lapses into tongues, a spontaneous personal prayer language that fills her with bliss. Needless to say, Corinne feels left out, longing for the same elation her friend so thoroughly enjoys.
But things don’t stop there. Over time, Corinne increasingly becomes filled with doubt about her faith. She recalls past tragedies, like her mother’s miscarriage, and then lives through new ones of her own, such as witnessing the anguish of a dear friend who suffers a debilitating brain tumor. She can’t help but wonder where God is when such dire circumstances arise, especially since He was there for her when she suffered her own misfortune. Reconciling this glaring contradiction causes her much confusion and heartache.Learning how to balance secular issues and spiritual considerations in her daily life becomes a growing challenge, too. While glimpses of this arise during her adolescence, they grow more pervasive with age. What’s more, her attempts at addressing these matters come under heightened scrutiny by other members of the community, sometimes involving things as trivial as her clothing choices. But the fellowship’s scrutiny doesn’t stop with Corinne’s worldly acts; it carries over into her spiritual practices as well. She becomes puzzled, for example, when she’s criticized for freely expressing her own religious fervor, an act viewed by the congregation as sermonizing, something reserved exclusively for the men of the community. She wonders why she’s not allowed to openly share her joy and epiphanies with others; after all, would a truly loving God really instruct followers to restrict such acts on the basis of something as limiting, arbitrary and ultimately inconsequential as gender?
While the film overtly deals with religious and spiritual considerations in a Christian context, many of its underlying themes are applicable to other sacred and metaphysical traditions as well. Chief among them is the issue of faith, that steadfast trust we each place in our relationship with God/Goddess/All That Is (or whatever other term best suits you). It’s a subject that raises a host of questions, such as how committed must we be to it? Can we implicitly trust the deity in whose hands we pledge our devotion? What are we to make of situations in which our prayers seemingly go unanswered or manifest in “distorted” ways? And what are we to do if disillusionment sets in?
These questions are not exclusive to Christianity. Practitioners of other belief systems often grapple with these issues in their own particular spiritual or philosophical milieus. It’s not unheard of, for example, for conscious creators to find their intents going awry, either materializing in unexpected forms or not at all, making them wonder what their divine collaborator is up to. These incidents are not unlike what Corinne experiences, and such episodes sometimes are enough to evoke questions about the strength of one’s faith, no matter what tradition that devotion is based upon.
In these instances, if we have concerns about the path we find ourselves on, it’s a sign that we must examine the beliefs we’re putting out, for they drive what we experience. To that end, are we being clear with the Universe about what we really want? Are we allowing secondary considerations, like doubt or fear, to undercut the manifestation process by sending mixed signals to our divine collaborator? Or, perhaps most importantly, are we inherently mistrustful of our collaborator, believing that it’s behaving capriciously or not in our best interests? The presence of thoughts like this will invariably affect the quality of the outcomes we experience and the satisfaction we get from them.
Those who truly understand this divine relationship, be it in a conscious creation, Christian or other context, ultimately know that we dwell in a “Safe Universe,” one that operates with our best interests at heart, even if we don’t always readily recognize that as such. This is where the issue of trust comes into play, something that frequently requires considerable effort to fully grasp and embrace. In fact, getting to this point is often a process, something that we grow into over time as our understanding deepens, making it ever easier to recognize, acknowledge and accept the character of this intimately collaborative relationship. Indeed, it’s often said in conscious creation circles that we are each “in a constant state of becoming,” a notion that aptly sums up the progressive nature of this revelatory journey. Corinne experiences this for herself firsthand in the film, personifying a process that many of us will likely go through during our lifetimes, no matter what tradition we’re engaged in.
Corinne’s saving grace in this is that she’s cognizant enough to know when to raise questions about her faith and not to follow it blindly, especially when being cajoled by others who insist that her thoughts and practices must follow prescribed forms. Anyone who genuinely understands the nature of faith realizes that the Universe provides us with the means to fulfill our intents in the ways it deems most expedient, even if we don’t always comprehend its methods or if its manifestations don’t match our preconceived notions. Yet those who zealously subscribe to established religious traditions often demand strict, unquestioning adherence to their dogmas, liturgies and even costuming, insisting that their way is the only “right” way, a conviction that, ironically enough, flies squarely in the face of how All That Is fundamentally operates.
For her part, Corinne isn’t afraid to raise questions about her community’s spiritual and secular requirements and even her own personal faith. She seeks the truth, with her ultimate goal being an understanding of her relationship with God, not those who claim to speak for Him. In fact, it’s through such questioning that her own understanding deepens, showing her that spirituality is something more than just what happens in church or a closed-off community; it’s about how one chooses to live one’s life in the world, the one that she and All That Is have co-created in both its secular and spiritual aspects, and not about adherence to the arbitrary preferences of a group that believes its answers to life are the only ones that anyone needs. In this sense, then, Corinne comes to discover that secular and spiritual questions are not mutually exclusive, as many would contend, but instead are intrinsically intertwined, a realization that comes from true faith and not from rigorous obedience to subjectively adopted theological trappings. Any notion of separation between the two is an illusion (and a manmade one at that).
It would have been easy for the characters in this film to be portrayed as caricatures, but, thankfully, that temptation was effectively resisted. Credit the writing and, especially, the skillful direction of first-time filmmaker Vera Farmiga for that. The movie depicts its characters as individuals, not stereotypes, allowing their layered, complicated natures to shine through. This balanced approach makes the story and its players engaging to watch, in both moments of drama and humor, drawing viewers into the characters’ spiritual sojourns and warmly welcoming them to come along for the ride (and what a ride it is).
Faith is something we’re all tested on at some point, and “Higher Ground” provides an effective guide to help prepare us for such occasions. Watch closely; you’ll be amazed at how much you can glean from it, information that will stand you in good stead when times get tough and help elevate you to unimagined heights of enlightenment, no matter what your spiritual or philosophical leanings.
Copyright © 2011, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.