Religious faith is the trickiest subject to tackle in an art form that can’t help but literalize—Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese both found it agonizing. So God only knows why actor Vera Farmiga, probably best known for her sexy therapist in The Departed, chose it for her directorial debut. Higher Ground, a natural interweaving of period detail from the 1960s through the ’80s as well as a subtle critique written by a believer (memoirist Carolyn S. Briggs), must count as proof of miracles. Like Todd Haynes’s masterful Safe, it is the complex story of one woman’s adventure with an evangelical group.
But to Farmiga’s own ambitious credit, this is not a cult, but a serious group of Christians, portrayed as well-meaning people if still blinkered by their views on women, independence and fulfillment. After a beautiful prologue (partly starring the director’s younger sister, Taissa), the plot centers on Corinne (Farmiga), a warm, spiritual woman. She’s settled with Ethan (the excellent Leonard)—her husband and a failed rock star—into a deeply observant lifestyle in suburban upstate New York. They and their friends suffer from the typical problems of the day, sexual satisfaction being an especially thorny one, and the solutions of the local pastor begin to ring hollow. Funny and heartbreaking, this is a movie that would have made the ’80s-era Jonathan Demme, attuned to American anxieties, blush with pride.