Movie Review: Higher Ground (2011)

Higher Ground movieDirector: Vera Farmiga
Screenwriter: Carolyn S. Briggs (with Tim Metcalfe), based on her memoir This Dark World
Starring: Vera Farmiga
MPAA Rating: R, for some language and sexual content

Most films that center on Christianity fall into one of two categories: either they are terribly trite, dull, and of no interest to non-Christians, or they are irreverent parodies that make fun of Christians by way of caricature. This film falls into neither category but rather tells the story of one woman’s faith journey across three decades, and how different people and life events act on it. I have never seen my evangelical faith tradition portrayed on-screen with such fairness and depth. The Christian characters are not dumbbells or hypocrites or Bible-thumping jerks (though the real-life body of Christ does have some of those); they are people with hopes and fears and personal struggles and intellect and love. They are three-dimensional. They are authentic. They live life together in community, laughing and crying together, studying the Bible together, and supporting one another through acts of kindness and prayer. But they are not perfect: the well-meaning admonitions of one elder sister in Christ contribute to Corinne’s growing feelings of isolation and doubt, and her church’s failure to honor those feelings and honestly engage them results in her decision to leave.

The movie is divided into six titled parts—“Summons,” “Renegade,” “Consumed,” “Wilderness,” “Wrestling until Dawn,” and “The Book of Life”—each one marking a milestone in the spiritual formation of lead character Corinne: her acceptance of Jesus into her heart as a child at Vacation Bible School; her backsliding as a teenager; her return to the faith with renewed passion as an adult; her experience of tragedy; a period of processing that tragedy and its implications on her belief system; and an ambiguous ending in which she literally stands at the threshold of her church sanctuary, looking in. 

The title of the movie, “Higher Ground,” refers to Corinne’s desire to rise above life’s disappointments and her own insecurities. She wants to be grounded in something more stable than herself, to experience faith, love, and trust, and the uplift they bring—but those things don’t come easily for her. The movie shares its title with a nineteenth-century hymn, which reads in part,

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith on heaven’s tableland,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

The director could have chosen to play this hymn during one of the scenes, to hammer in the movie’s themes and make explicit the longings of Corinne’s heart, but that would have been too easy. Instead, an instrumental version plays on the piano as young Corinne walks the church aisle in response to Pastor Bud’s invitation to salvation at the beginning of the movie—very subtle, and tasteful for being so. It’s left to the viewer to make the connection.

Higher Ground has an excellent soundtrack of old-time gospel songs: “Blessed Assurance,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” and so on. (Click here for a full list of songs from the movie.) Many of these are diagetic—that is, sung by the characters—which makes sense for a film that spotlights a Christian community. (Singing is such a large part of our worship.) Farmiga, as director, cleverly weaves these hymns into the fabric of the story, oftentimes using their lyrics to echo something that Corinne is feeling internally. One example is when Corinne has an emotional breakdown in her car: as she cries out to God, asking him why he is hiding himself from her, her church congregation can be heard singing faintly in the background, “Cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord, and take not thy holy spirit from me; restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and renew a right spirit within me”—lines from Psalm 51. As Corinne wrestles with God—and here you can see that she is putting up a fight, she is not letting go—she does so in the line of a great many saints of the past, like David the psalmist, who struggled at times to feel God’s presence. Frustrated, she begs for restoration and renewal.

In another scene, Corinne’s doubt is evidenced by her inability to sing “It Is Well with My Soul.” She marvels at how easily the words seem to come to those around her on the heels of a churchwide tragedy. She can only stare dumbly, wondering how God could inflict such suffering on his children, and whether she can really trust him with the safekeeping of her soul.

A lot of reviewers have written that Higher Ground is about an individual who finds faith and then loses it; she walks away from it because it no longer fulfills her, because she can’t pretend anymore. I disagree: I say it’s about an individual who falls in love with God, and then when she grows out of the infatuation stage, she’s forced to reevaluate her relationship with him: What is it based on? Does she really know him? Can she trust him? Can he trust her? Why does the relationship feel so one-sided? Is she being too needy? What does love even mean?

The theme of wrestling is present throughout the movie, an allusion to the biblical episode in which Jacob wrestles with God—literally—until daybreak, refusing to let go until he blesses him. Corinne wrestles with God in a figurative sense, and after much struggle, she ultimately discovers that he cannot be pinned down—that he is so much more complex and mysterious than she had previously thought. In her final monologue-cum-sermon, she says she wants so badly for what she is wrestling to be solid, but it’s not, and she understands now why the Jewish rabbis believe that to speak God’s name at all is to speak it in vain, for he is unspeakable.

This monologue marks the metaphoric daybreak in Corinne’s wrestling match. Does she get the blessing she was after? Is her persistence rewarded?

The movie doesn’t clearly tell us. Like all great art, it asks questions instead of provides answers, and can be interpreted in various ways. Carolyn Briggs, whose memoir inspired the screenplay, did in fact leave the church, but in interviews about the movie, she said she purposely wanted the movie to end on an open note. I think that some people have tried to read the memoir into the movie, instead of letting the movie stand on its own—which it is undoubtedly meant to do: no real names are used in the movie, major plot points and characters were invented, and there is not even a “based on a true story” note at the beginning. Although Carolyn put a lot of herself in the character she created for the screen, Corinne is not Carolyn.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I read the ending as Corinne coming into a deeper, more honest faith, one that relinquishes the need to have all the answers and the desire to be sustained by a constant spiritual high. She realizes that just as human relationships can drift apart and then drift back together, so can Godward ones, but there is reconciliation and grace for the drifters. (Her sincere plea for forgiveness to her husband at the end, and then the lingering kiss they exchange, leads me to suppose that their marriage will be restored.) Some would say that her movement toward the sanctuary exit during the service suggests that she has chosen to exit the faith for good, but I think that she is merely bringing her son to children’s church (he walks with her down the aisle), and that the long pause in the doorway is prompted by a sudden nostalgia she feels for a faith that used to be so simple but that has now been forced to engage with what’s real, drawing suffering and doubt into its matrix.

Having been put to the test, Corinne’s faith is proven true, albeit changed; it is now subversive in some ways of the tradition in which she had been at home for so long, for its object is now seen more clearly for who he is: a God who delights in the public testimony of his daughters, be it marked by joyful praise or messy desperation—a role her church had denied her, forbidding her to teach men.

The end of the movie in no way marks the end of Corinne’s spiritual journey; she hasn’t “arrived,” but she will continue to press on the upward way.

Higher Ground is a beautiful portrait of one woman’s struggle to have and hold on to faith.

It’s also a warning to churches to evaluate whether they might be at all responsible for alienating sincere seekers of God by creating an environment that suppresses the spiritual gifting of certain members or that discourages theological questioning and healthy expressions of anger toward God. Corinne’s church didn’t allow her to have a voice simply because she was a woman, even though she had so much to say. They also seemed to reject lament as a legitimate form of emotional expression, preferring instead to see nothing but good in adverse life situations, which made Corinne crazy; her impulse to cry out, “Why God, why?” along with her felt need to bottle up that cry for fear of castigation got added to the sense of alienation she was feeling from her husband and from God and slowly crushed her. What are our churches doing to support those who are experiencing, as the pastor in the movie calls it, a “dark night of the soul”?

Furthermore, the movie invites viewers to consider where they are on their own faith journey, and what their next step will be.

My path to God has been different than Corinne’s in some ways but similar in others, and I was grateful for the ability to reexperience through this film different phases of and moments from my spiritual walk: the shy raising of my hand at VBS when I was seven (I do! I want to invite Jesus into my heart!); the fiery joy and enthusiasm I felt when I rededicated my life to Christ as a teenager and reoriented my life around him; the embarrassment and confusion I felt on being called out as immodestly dressed at a Christian social gathering; my love for reading and for deep discussion; my questioning of certain of my church’s teachings; my discovery of spiritual manifestations, like tongues, and practices, like lectio divina, that were spurned by the denomination I was a part of; my gradually built confidence in my own spiritual insights; surrendering to mystery, giving up my need to know; and so on.

The movie is a great springboard into spiritual discussion. Unfortunately, the R rating will limit its Christian audience, as personal standards may preclude some from watching it. While it may not be appropriate for church settings (and that’s for you to decide, with great caution), I urge you to consider whether another viewing context might work. Because I feel so strongly about the film’s merit, I actually registered for an Internet Movie Database (IMDb) account so that I could create a parent content advisory on the database’s Higher Ground movie page. This advisory is divided into the categories of Sex & Nudity, Violence & Gore, Profanity, Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking, and Frightening/Intense Scenes, listing specific instances of each. This particular movie has a high rating mainly because of a teenage sex scene (which I thought was relatively tame), two different shots that show cartoonish marker drawings of male genitalia (one wife’s preferred method of foreplay), and eight f-words.

If you do decide to get a group together to watch the movie, here is a list of suggested questions that could follow it up, which can be modified based on the makeup of the group:

  1. The part titles in the movie map out Corinne’s spiritual trajectory. How does each title relate to the phase of growth it signifies? Do you identify with any one of these phases more than another?
  2. When Corinne’s mom tells the accordion salesman at the beginning of the movie that her daughter is not musical, he tells her that maybe she just hasn’t found her instrument yet. Later on in high school, a prospective boyfriend tells Corinne the same thing. What does Corinne’s instrument end up being? Do you think she’ll find a place where she can play it?
  3. Where do dogs show up in the movie, and what might they symbolize?
  4. What role do feelings play in the life of faith? Should we expect only highs? In seasons where we can’t feel God, what should we do?
  5. How can we express doubt healthily? What about grief or lament?
  6. Without saying anything, consider whether you know of anyone right now who is going through a spiritual crisis. Think to yourself how you might be able to support that person, in a way that is honest, caring, and life-affirming. Maybe you yourself are presently going through one. What do you need to get through it? Whatever it is, ask for it through prayer.
  7. Have you ever felt oppressed by any of the church’s teachings or practices? If so, how did you address the situation?
  8. The mail courier that Corinne befriends reads her a poem by W. B. Yeats called “Never Give All the Heart.” Is this good advice? Does Corinne heed it?
  9. Do you ever struggle with admitting mystery into your concept of God? With letting go of the need to define, draw boundaries, or be certain of things? How do we reconcile the biblical teachings of God as intangible and inscrutable with the other biblical teachings of God as near and knowable through Christ?
  10. What is the significance of the movie title—that is, what is the “higher ground,” and does Corinne reach it by the movie’s end? What is the higher ground that you’re looking for? What is the higher ground that God promises to those who seek him?

And just for fun, an upbeat a cappella rendition of the hymn “Higher Ground” by the Crystal River Quartet (sadly, they omit the third and fourth verses!):

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