The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Higher Ground, the Film
Testing the Evangelical Experience

             A movie on the shelf of our local video store caught my eye last week. The cover said something about a young woman coming of age through a journey of doubt and questioning. I thought at first it might be a religious movie, but then I noticed the R rating, which ruled out hokey piety. And I’m all about doubt and questioning. So I took a chance and rented Higher Ground.
Higher Ground director and star, Vera Farmiga
            Good thing the description on the case was sufficiently vague. If I’d known beforehand it was about Jesus freaks struggling to keep their faith and optimism in the face of life’s disfiguring blows, I would have put it back on the shelf, figuring that faith in Jesus would somehow win out in the end, none of my questions about life would be answered, and I’d be left feeling slightly irritable that I’d wasted my time watching it.
            But the actual film is nothing like that stereotype. As gentle as it is savage, as merciful as it is just, Higher Ground, recently released on dvd, is a serious, thoughtful work about the real lives of homegrown, American, Evangelical Christians.
            I’m familiar with Evangelical culture. Though raised in a Unitarian household, I also grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s in Lancaster County, PA, then a dominantly agricultural region governed by a traditional, Christian fundamentalist morality which, of course, almost no one could live up to. I learned to get along with fundamentalists because there wasn’t anyone else around to play with. My first kiss with my first girl friend was in a corn field. My closest neighborhood friend through junior high and high school was a Missouri Lutheran who believed in the Bible literally.
            Yet there was also suspicion. My Unitarian interior, fostered by my parents, always understood that, no matter how much I seemed to be accepted by my friends, teachers, and acquaintances, they all most probably and not always secretly believed I and my whole family were going to hell.
            By the time Jesus freaks appeared in the 1960s, rising out of the hippy culture and, in a sense, as an alternative to it, I was more than distrustful of Christian conservatives. They passed too many judgments, left too much out, bullied presumed sinners they didn’t even know with venomous enjoyment. Also, by then I’d had my own spiritual experiences on psychedelic drugs and didn’t want to be told what I needed to do to save my soul. No religion, cult, or sect has a corner on the longing for an eternal home where we may find happiness without fear of wrath or destruction. That’s a basic human longing.
            With complete respect, then, Higher Ground portrays that longing as it expresses itself within a congregation of ardent Evangelical believers who go about their busy lives of serving the Lord while supporting each other as extended family through one after another of life’s temptations, triumphs, and tragedies.
            At the center of the tale is Corinne, a young mother played with astonishing subtlety by Vera Farmiga, who also directs. Even in childhood Corinne seems always a little outside the circles she moves in, always a little puzzled by the behavior she sees around her.
            Yet she strives to participate. In a harrowing scene, when her infant daughter is missing in the wreckage of a freak automobile accident, she cries out in desperation for God. When the child is rescued her husband proclaims it’s God’s answer to her cry. The couple become Christian, joining an Evangelical congregation and receiving full-immersion baptism in a local creek.
            But Corinne, though she tries, never seems wholly comfortable, either in her marriage or in her church. She never enjoys sex, which she tries to avoid, and she can’t seem to fully sign on to the doctrines, either—especially regarding deference to the men. When she tries to speak out on matters of faith, she is reprimanded by the pastor’s wife, who reminds her that it is not a woman’s place to preach. When she consents to see a marriage counselor before leaving her husband, the church therapist—a self-described “prophet of God”—tells her she is possessed by Satan.
            Yet with the possible exception of the therapist, none of the many characters in the film is stereotyped. They don’t speak with one hackneyed voice, their spiritual yearning is portrayed authentically, their longing for community in communion with a divine creator and savior is universal, even if others do not thrill to the same conceptualizations. We live in bewildering times. The Evangelical life portrayed in Higher Ground is a response to these times, but not at the expense of the humanity of the characters portrayed.
            Will Corinne leave the community where her life has been centered for a dozen years or more and go out into the world on her own? It seems so, but we can’t be quite sure. The emotional tug of security in the group is a powerful force she must overcome. Anyone who has experienced the turmoil of breaking with a group identity and striking out on one’s own knows the feeling. That’s the remarkable thing about this film. It humanizes a group all too often demonized on one hand and sanctified on the other. In doing so it comments with elegant delicacy upon the helplessness we all encounter, no matter what our ideology, when we come face-to-face with existential circumstances we may never be able to understand.
            Higher Ground is adapted from a memoir, This Dark World, by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also collaborated on the screenplay. The character Corinne, played so expertly by Ms. Farmiga, is Ms. Briggs’ screen persona, though apparently the film diverges from the book, I suspect to crank up dramatic tension. In any case, the book was quite well received among the hip intelligentsia, as the film has also been. A more interesting question is what Evangelicals think of it.
            Personally, I admired it. I liked the music, too, much of it played live in group worship situations and other communal gatherings. It’s Christian contemporary, which can be quite as lively and heart-felt as any secular song of love and longing.
            But most of all I liked the sheer artistry of the film, a story told about people I’ve tended to avoid in a way that makes me feel their frustrations, joys, and pains as I would feel my own. In that sense the film reaches beyond its ready-made niche to speak to the wider culture, a bridge, however fragile, between Evangelicals and the rest of us, softening hardened perceptions.
            That’s the value of good art. We need more of it in our fractious world.