Thursday, 19 January 2012

Higher Ground

Having grown up as part of an evangelical, charismatic subculture, I felt a weird emotional response while watching a movie like this (and there are very few movies like this). I’m not sure if I can describe it well – there’s a deep vulnerability as I watch a culture that feels simultaneously close to home yet notably at odds with the larger culture in which I’ve also been submerged. Maybe it’s a vulnerability that comes when I’m forced to see different parts of myself through one, public lens. And when you add to this that I had no idea where the movie would eventually lead, the vulnerable feeling - even tension - was multiplied. For these same reasons a few years back, I decided I couldn’t even watch Jesus Camp after seeing the trailer.

However, Higher Ground is no Jesus Camp (from what I’ve heard I’m glad I didn’t put myself through that, though it may have been a fine, if biased, film). It’s hard to imagine the skill and sensitivity required to have made a film that manages to be both appropriately sympathetic and appropriately critical at the same time. Corinne (Farmiga) is believable and easy to relate to. She’s an honest, struggling believer trapped in a culture that didn’t (and often still doesn’t) have room for an intelligent, critical-thinking woman with obvious leadership gifts. She had an amazing friend who was an oasis for a time (and who added some lovely colour to the film). Her marriage is stuck in realistic and complicated ways. They struggled with intimacy, weren’t growing in the same direction, and the movie largely avoids placing blame.

That avoidance of over-simplifying is the saving grace of a film like this. With the exception of the therapist (figures – helps provide me with a “how not to do therapy” clip) there are no real villains (well - maybe also the pastor's wife). There are many moments of soft humour that worked very well for me and helped lighten the story. The acting was solid and not overplayed. From reading some reviews, I suspect it is fair to say that for those who don’t have a lot of history with this subculture, the movie may be slow or flat, but I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to revisit some of their evangelical history.

In the end, my feelings of vulnerability and tension transformed into the validation and warmth that accompanies a story well told that hits home. In my own story, I feel that along the way, by the grace of God, I found some practices (like the freedom to lament) and an open-minded and supportive community that made evangelicalism less of a trap for me, but surely many have experienced stories like Corinne’s.
For this, I give it **** - the final half star is added for the subtle nod the pastor gives in the final scene.


  1. aww, wish I had taken the time to stop over, sounds like it would have resonated with me too.

  2. I have no argument with anything in your review, but I did not appreciate Higher Ground quite as much as you did. I would give it ***+ (even with the nod). For me, I think the very things that made it such a good film for you (and for me) stood in the way of it being a great film. It was so understated (which has its strengths) that it lacked the passion to pull me in and make me more than just an interested observer. My favourite scene was the blow-up in the car because that was the only truly passionate scene in the film.

    I do have to agree that Higher Ground was very unique in its sympathetic/critical approach to evangelical Christianity, providing an interesting lens from which to look back on my faith journey (with some of the mixed feelings you describe and no doubt felt yourself). Which leads me to some theological reflection time:

    You mention intelligent, critical-thinking women and I agree that was a theme throughout the film, but I thought much more could and should have been done with it. I'm also not sure I can put that critical thinking alongside Corinne's particular faith journey. I guess it's based on a true experience so I can't push this too far, but it sure didn't ring true to my own journey with faith and critical thinking. To be more precise, I saw no evidence that Corinne was really wrestling with her faith and thinking that there might be different ways of having a Christian faith (and there are obviously thousands of such ways). Instead the film seemed to show this one evangelical faith as THE faith and Corinne had to decide whether she was in or out based on whether this ONE faith was working for her or not. I couldn't relate to that, though maybe it's because my own faith journey is too unique (if not that different from yours) and Corinne's critical thinking just went in a different direction.

  3. It's probably important to remember that I always rate movies nearly entirely subjectively. I do not think this would be a candidate for best picture, for example, but it was one of the movies that I most appreciated viewing this year (pretending that this is still 2011). As long as I'm interested, I don't mind a lack of passion at all. For example, I just watched A Separation, where people got way more worked up on occasion, and I thought that movie (probably a better quality film) was much more boring. Nothing more boring than a tantrum or other useless passion.

    It's true that the critical thinking aspect was underdeveloped, but like the lack of passion displayed, I think this was intentional. I would say Corinne couldn't enter her church's passion well and there wasn't room for her to enter her own. Similarly, her critical thinking barely had room to show itself. The lack of considering a faith option never came to mind for me. I suspect that she intuited that her lack of mystical connection with God was her own fault, which may have been in one sense true. Remember that she also had trouble with sexual pleasure (for unknown reasons) - some personality types expect to feel the passionate experience they see in others but have little access to it. Her critical thinking came in when she realised that she was being suffocated in a too-small world. I would expect that she might well find a different way of seeing Christianity eventually, but the movie didn't last long enough to see. For both you and I, our faith journeys allowed a lot more freedom to our critical thinking because we always had people willing to broaden their understandings along with us.

  4. Hmmmm.

    How did you get to see A Separation already? I am waiting to see it, but it probably won't get to Winnipeg for months yet.

  5. One learns skills when one lives in a backwater (though a lovely backwater). I couldn't even get Higher Ground through "traditional methods." Given that you won't, I might just do a review on A Separation in a couple of days.