As I stepped into the lobby of Denver’s Esquire Theater last weekend, I overheard a couple of middle-aged women talking about the movie I was going to see, Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut, Higher Ground. One of the ladies was fuming: “I almost walked out after the first 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe all that Jesus stuff. Why did they need to do all that?” Her interlocutor—a stranger to her, I gathered—answered that, well, the Jesus stuff is precisely what the movie is about: “That’s fundamentalist Christianity,” she said. “I was raised that way. The movie does a good job of showing what that world is like.”
“Well, I’m a Jew,” responded the first woman. “I’ve never seen anything like that, and I didn’t like it. At all.”
On my way out of the theater a couple hours later, my wife and I—both raised in conservative evangelical homes—had a very similar conversation. I was touched, even bowled over, by Farmiga’s film about a young woman who finds faith in Jesus, experiences deep personal renewal, and then slowly, painfully questions everything she’s believed and the community she’s believed it with. I saw the world I had known writ large and alive. Many scenes felt like explicit pictures of my past. I’ve said the things Farmiga’s character says. I’ve believed what she believed and questioned what she’s questioned. Good on Farmiga, I thought, for getting so much right, and for doing the extremely difficult work of describing a world not your own.
But my wife was frustrated. The film felt false to her, a total misfire. She didn’t recognize at all the world Farmiga renders in Higher Ground—didn’t recognize it as her own, and didn’t recognize it as a Christianity that actually exists.
Religion is expressed in cultures, with an emphasis on the plural. Even a category that is contained by a string of modifiers—contemporary American fundamentalist evangelical Christianity—is too broad a category to describe any particular culture, because culture is local, layered, and idiosyncratic. Higher Ground captures just one strain of evangelicalism, and it’s a particularly fundamentalist strain, particular in the way its language is inflected with the Bible, in the way it prays, in the way it understands life’s tragedies and triumphs. But it’s a real strain, one with which I identified as a teenager. And it’s one that still exists—though Farmiga’s film, which is based on Carolyn S. Brigg’s memoir, is a period piece set mostly in the 1970s and 1980s among the hippie-esque Jesus Movement, it captures a movement whose legacy lingers. Cultural forms diversify and change, but they also permeate boundaries of time and space.
Farmiga’s film opens with a close-up of a man named Ethan (Joshua Leonard) as he testifies (in the technical sense) to the work of Jesus in his life. Ethan, we soon learn, is husband to Corrine, played by Farmiga, and the two are new Christian converts, flush with faith and the renewal it has brought their lives. A long flashback section shows us how Corrine prayed the Sinner’s Prayer as a child but didn’t really find a faith of her own until, as a teenager, she got pregnant with Ethan, married, and discovered that their lives of drugs and rock n’ roll couldn’t sustain and nurture a young family. To Jesus they turned.
For a while, the turning was an entry into a fun, strong, lively communal life, one that helped them make sense of the world and find peace for their souls. But over time, Corrine begins to question her faith. We learn, along with her, that her church is stridently conservative—too patriarchal in its family and church life, too literalistic in its approach to Scripture, too limiting in its dealings with the outside world (which, for them, barely exists at all). Corrine bumps up against her culture again and again, especially after tragedy strikes her best friend and she learns that her church’s grasp of theology has too little counsel for those who suffer.
Many of the themes that circle around this story transcend cultural settings. Believers and non-believers of all types might relate to many of these very human moments. But to her great credit as a storyteller, Farmiga emphasizes the details of Corrine’s—and presumably, Carolyn S. Briggs’—specific Christian culture. The film gets just right the way a Christian group emphasizes certain Bible verses over others, the way singing praise choruses constitutes “worship,” the way a pastor can establish a quiet but implacable authority, and the way strict spirituality can be leavened by playful sexuality. I’ve experienced several of these subtle cultural expressions, yet rarely seen them represented in fiction in a way I could recognize. Higher Ground nails all this and more.
Critics seem split on Higher Ground, and I’ve noted that critics who admire it seem to recognize that the film is set in a particular culture, and critics who don’t see it as standing for the whole of (something they might call) Christian Fundamentalism. So New York Magazine’s David Edelstein writes that Corrine and Ethan “join an evangelical church of scruffy, folk-music types—it’s the seventies—who believe the Lord also ‘writes his gospel in the rocks and trees’”; he clearly recognizes that Farmiga is exploring something unique. (He also calls the group an “order,” which is too high-church for these freewheeling, self-styling Protestants.) Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Philips writes that Farmiga’s film is about a “tiny, fairly radical fundamentalist Christian sect in Iowa.” Those kinds of modifiers—tiny, radical—matter. They acknowledge that the religious group in Higher Ground is but one group, and its particularities are what make it what it is.
But plenty of reviews overlook these distinctions, and in so doing, fail to see the value of Farmiga’s project. The Boston Herald’s James Verniere, in a negative review, summarizes that the film is about “a born-again Christian.” Well, sure, but that’s awful broad. Carolyn Briggs and my wife both intersected with a world that Verniere would recognize as “born again,” but their experiences bear little resemblance to one another. Details matter, and maybe Verniere wasn’t paying attention to them: “We get scene after scene in which people with bizarrely beatific expressions assure one another they are going to heaven and then prove themselves so, so wrong by their behavior.” This is completely inaccurate—I can’t remember the characters even once reassuring each other about heaven, though perhaps that’s what some people think evangelicals do. Verniere seems to have mistaken Farmiga’s project for an attempt at representing the whole of evangelical Christianity, and perhaps he rejected it, in part, because it fails to do that sufficiently. But Farmiga smartly focuses on the details of just one evangelical Christianity, and in so doing, reveals religion as it is—a lived, complicated, and very human experience, at times lovely and filled with grace, at times complicated and sad, and expressed at all times through individuals and communities in all their wild idiosyncrasies.
Higher Ground joins The Apostle as a member of a very small group of films that both take a critical gaze at Christianity and manage to do right by it—not by excusing the failures of a faith, nor by ridiculing it, but by representing it as it actually exists in local conditions, with local traits. Higher Ground can’t resolve until Corrine finds a way to leave her faith and forge a new, self-styled spirituality. That, too, is only one possible resolution, and I wish that the film offered a view of other, more supportable, sustainable, and even attractive Christianities. But plenty of ex-fundamentalists never find those Christianities, and it’s fine to imagine that Corrine never did, either. Higher Ground isn’t every Christian’s story, but it’s a true story all the same.