Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 16th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Faith-Based Uncertainty

film_higherWoman vs. church in actress' accomplished directing debut, 'Higher Ground'

Was it a sign, or just random coincidence? Coming home from the film Higher Ground, actress Vera Farmiga's impressive directing debut about a modern woman's loss of faith, we heard the middle of The Who song, "I'm Free," on the radio, where they sing, "...Messiahs pointed toward the door/But no one had the guts to leave the temple." Based on the memoir, "This Dark Place," by Carolyn S. Briggs (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Higher Ground is all about having the guts to leave the temple—in this case, a tightly knit born-again Christian community in the 1970s and '80s—and what a wrenching decision that can be.

Director Farmiga (who also stars) does an admirable job of charting the heroine's course from childhood uncertainty to long years "safe" in the bosom of the fundamentalist church, with all its singing, praying, and fellowship (along with the stifling regulation of women's roles and behavior, and the discouragement of intellect). It's easy to see how seductive the pressure to join the team might be for those who have not yet found their way in life. But a strong thread of skepticism runs through the story, from outside observers, the filmmakers, even from the protagonist herself, so we expect her break with the church to be more profound, dramatically and spiritually. Instead, her apparent decline in faith occurs with a whimper, not a bang.

After the euphoria of a lakeside baptism for Corinne Miller (Farmiga), the narrative flashes backward to tell her story. In the sequence called "Summons," the child Corinne sheepishly raises her hand one day in Vacation Bible School when the pastor asks who has accepted the Holy Spirit. She never gives it another thought for the next few years as she grows into a bookish teen (now played by Taissa Farmiga, the director's look-alike younger sister) with ambitions to write novels, girlfriend of a neighborhood rock guitarist, and, soon enough, pregnant new bride.

But a brush with potential tragedy convinces Corinne and her husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard) that God has saved them, and they embrace the church. Giving up their dreams of careers in music and writing, they spend their days praising the Lord, studying the Bible, making new babies, and listening to sermons  from Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz), a bright-eyed Pentecostal warrior who calls Corinne "one fish the Lord has been trying to hook for a long time!"

The film provides an interesting glimpse into a middle-class born-again Christian community of the era. (Although it's never explained what any of these people with their comfortable houses and late-model cars do for a living—no one is ever seen at a job—that enables them to devote 24/7 to the Lord.) The long, floral-print dresses of the women, the shaggy manes of the men, and an unexpected emphasis on teaching church members sexual techniques remind us it's the '70s.  But if a woman stands up to speak in church, as Corinne does, she's rebuked for trespassing on the males-only prerogative of preaching. And a marriage counselor provided by the church isn't there to resolve domestic issues, but to "save your soul" (as he tells the wife presumed to be at fault).

The trouble is, Corinne always seems like a bit of an outsider. This may be because it's initially Ethan's decision to join the church, or because Farmiga plays her with too much lively intelligence to completely submerge herself within the group. The first time she sees her friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) speaking in tongues, she can't help laughing, yet declares, "I want that!" like an eager child at someone else's birthday party. Her private attempts to replicate the experience are extremely self-aware ("Come on, Holy Spirit!" she exhorts, half kidding), and she and the ribald Annika become a subversive Greek Chorus of two, sharing private commentary on the foibles and doctrine of their community.

Farmiga's acting and directing choices are interesting, her storytelling fluid and compelling. But the material lets her down; Corinne's issues seem less like a crisis of genuine faith than someone simply outgrowing a smothering group. Because she never seems completely connected to her faith, losing it doesn't have the impact it should.film_higherground


★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, and John Hawkes. Written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe. From the book by Carolyn S. Briggs. Directed by Vera Farmiga. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R. 109 minutes.

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Growing Hope

Campos Seguros combats sexual assault in the Watsonville farmworker community Farm work was a way of life for Rocio Camargo, who grew up in Watsonville as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her parents met while working the fields 30 years ago, and her father went on to run Fuentes Berry Farms.


Cardinal Grand Cross in the Sky

Following Holy Week (passion, death and burial of the Pisces World Teacher) and Easter Sunday (Resurrection Festival), from April 19 to the 23, the long-awaited and discussed Cardinal Cross of Change appears in the sky, composed of Cardinal signs Aries, Libra, Cancer, and Capricorn, with planets (13-14 degrees) Uranus (in Aries), Jupiter (in Cancer), Mars (in Libra) and Pluto (in Capricorn), an actual geometrical square or cross configuration. Cardinal signs mark the seasons of change, initiating new realities.


Sugar: The New Tobacco?

Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California. SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.


Animal Magnetism

Bear, mouse dare to be friends in charming ‘Ernest and Celestine’ It’s not exactly Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even a romance, although it is a love story about two individuals separated by prejudice who find the courage to form an unshakable bond despite the rules and traditions that keep them apart.
Sign up for Tomorrow's Good Times Today
Upcoming arts & events

Latest Comments


Foodie File: Red Apple Cafe

Breakfast takes center stage at Gracia Krakauer's Red Apple Cafe Before they moved to Aptos, Gracia and her husband Dan Krakauer would visit friends in Santa Cruz County and eat at the Red Apple Café all the time. Then they moved up here from Santa Monica five years ago, and bought the Aptos location (there’s a separate one in Watsonville) from the family who owned it for two decades.


How would you feel about a tech industry boom in Santa Cruz?

I feel like it would ruin the small old-town feeling of Santa Cruz. It wouldn’t be the same Surf City kind of vacation town that it is. Antoinette BennettSanta Cruz | Construction Management


Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX


Trout Gulch Vineyards

Cinsault 2012—la grande plage diurne The most popular wines on store shelves are those most generally known and available—Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are all superb for sure. But when you come across a more unusual varietal, like Trout Gulch Vineyards’ Cinsault ($18), it opens up a whole new world.