Bereft of both spiritual and narrative spark, the loss-of-faith drama Higher Ground gets stuck in the valley of the shadow of snark. Making her directorial debut, Vera Farmiga, heretofore a pleasant presence in top-heavy award bait, also takes the lead role of Corinne, a Midwest rural woman who embraces a hippie-inflected but paternalistic evangelical community with her high school-sweetheart husband (Joshua Leonard) after a brush with death in a van accident. The script, based on a memoir by co-writer Carolyn S. Briggs, simultaneously telegraphs Corinne’s dissatisfaction with the strictures of the sect—looking ill at ease in peasant dresses, she’s warned by a “sister” that her effusive comments in services come “dangerously close to preaching”—and broadly lampoons the more orthodox congregants (husbands gather to listen to a cassette series, Christlike Sex, for assistance in locating the clitoris).
Farmiga flails about until her character can openly rebel, never convincing as a woman with a yearning to plumb her spirituality in such a repressive context, and Norbert Leo Butz and Bill Irwin play ministers with slick oratory and rhetorical swoops that many viewers can comfortingly associate with Bible-thumping hustlers. Farmiga’s sister, Taissa, playing Corinne as a teen, has the less hampered role, as she slyly measures ‘60s social growth by her ability to borrow The Lord of the Flies from the library, or is deflowered in a field by her future spouse as a farm swine indifferently eyes her.
The film’s shuddering, off-kilter swerves into farce (including ‘70s New Hollywood-vintage flashes of fantasy, a solitary same-sex reverie included) bespeak a lack of confidence in the value of Corinne’s spiritual thirst, or any redeeming succor offered in her church to balance the sexist supremacy. Her earthy friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), fond of sketching her hubby’s penis and speaking in tongues that all sound suspiciously like Polish, is an even less likely Church Lady; when she’s struck by disease, the heroine’s rupture with belief in God’s mysterious ways is a fait accompli.
Laugh-trolling gags aside, Farmiga’s moribund visual style of medium static shots and cutting on dialogue tends to camouflage the gifts of Winter’s Bone cinematographer Michael McDonough. She similarly casts John Hawkes as Corinne’s affectionate but disappointed father and can’t assist him in registering as much more than Pa Walton with a mild drinking problem. From a dreary youth passage with bellbottoms and aviator glasses to an anticlimax in which Corinne reluctantly confesses to her emptiness before the altar, Farmiga hasn’t put much that’s lifelike into Higher Ground aside from immersive riverbank baptisms and an unresolved desire to have done it as a Diary of a Godly Housewife satire.