DALLAS—Here’s a short list of subjects that American filmmakers generally steer clear of, out of fear of offending moviegoers’ sensibilities:
The spiritual and sexual journey of a woman from adolescence to young adulthood to middle age
The doubts that even the most faith-bound people find themselves wrestling with
The way religion permeates and informs all of our lives, secularists and true believers alike
Yet what makes Vera Farmiga’s new film, “Higher Ground,” so effective isn’t that it merely has the guts to tackle these thorny subjects. It’s that Farmiga treats them with such matter-of-fact grace. We never once feel as if we’re trapped in some stodgy theology lecture; we feel as if we’re living and learning and stumbling right alongside the lead character, an upstate-New York wife and mother, played by Farmiga.
“Higher Ground” eschews the cosmic hooey of something like Michael Tolkin’s “The Rapture” (1991), or the fire-and-brimstone theatrics of Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” (1997). It’s about faith as most people experience it and understand it, as a constant push and pull, a construct that eludes us every time we think we have it figured out.
“The film magnifies those moments of the restless soul, those dark nights of the soul,” Farmiga said a few weeks ago in Dallas, where she had come to promote the film. “As uncomfortable as that pain and disillusionment and doubt feel, those are the moments in life where we become introspective.”
“Higher Ground” is based on a memoir called “This Dark World,” by Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Tim Metcalfe. In the film, the Briggs figure, renamed Corinne, is married with a young child when she and her husband, Ethan (the excellent Joshua Leonard), are caught up in a dangerous bus accident. The child survives, but Ethan insists that it was divine intervention , and leads the family to join up with a fundamentalist commune.
Farmiga, who’s best known for supporting roles in “The Departed” and “Up in the Air,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination, initially only intended to act in “Higher Ground”; Metcalfe was expected to be the director. But after years of developing the project together, the two couldn’t find financing. Not surprisingly, the subject matter , which follows Corinne over the course of two decades, as she comes to feel marginalized as a woman in her community and begins to openly question her church’s leaders , intimidated even the most audacious indie-film impresarios.
Only if Farmiga agreed to direct could the film get funding.
“I think films about faith that are easily marketed to the faith-based community, or films that use religion as backdrop to horror movies, those succeed,” Farmiga noted. “But it’s actually very rare to see faith portrayed in such a nuanced way. Financers aren’t chomping at the bit to throw money at it.”
That’s another of the many pleasures of the film: You can’t quite believe something this assured, a movie that dares to sometimes poke fun at its true-believer characters but always treats their religiosity respectfully and thoughtfully, would come from a first-timer. At the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Farmiga joked that she did all the things that a debut director is supposed to avoid: Her movie has multiple music cues, takes place in three visually distinct times periods and features complicated scenes involving animals and children. (She also prepped, shot and edited the film while pregnant with her second child, who was born in November.)
But “Higher Ground” unfolds at an appealingly leisurely pace, and it affords Farmiga the actress plenty of time and space to explore the nuances of her character’s journey.
Speaking of Farmiga’s performance: “Higher Ground” was acquired shortly after Sundance by Sony Pictures Classics, which is opening the movie in theaters just prior to the rush of fall prestige. The company used a similar strategy for films like “Junebug” and “Animal Kingdom,” which resulted in Oscar nominations for Amy Adams and Jacki Weaver, respectively.
And while during our interview Farmiga didn’t talk about the possibility of once again walking down the red carpet in February, this much should be stressed: In “Higher Ground,” she captures the roiling internal doubt of a woman who, for her own safety, has taught herself to put forth a faithful face to the world. Thus far this year, there hasn’t been another lead-actress performance that matches hers.
For now, though, she’s mostly preoccupied with trying to get people into seats to see a movie that doesn’t have major stars, doesn’t have car chases and might make many people uncomfortable.
“I’m asking a lot,” she said. “I’m asking nonbelievers to be open to something that they might detest, that might irritate them. And even as a believer, I’m asking the community of believers to be open-minded and open-hearted, and have a genuine respect for an individual’s journey.”