Partway through Higher Ground, Corinne (Vera Farmiga) is transfixed when her best friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk) begins speaking in tongues. They’re in a paddleboat on a lake, basking in what seems the grand security of living born-again. Annika explains the gift of tongues as a “prayer language. It settles things in your spirit,” she says. Corrine looks puzzled, then determined. “I want it,” she says. “You get everything.”
Later, when Corrine’s alone in her bathroom, she tries some of this language. She murmurs a bit, closes her eyes, hopes. And… nothing. She looks into the mirror and wonders what’s wrong, why she can’t get hold of what she wants so much. “Come on holy spirit,” she says aloud, as her sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) listens from outside the door. Disappointed when no prayer language comes to her, Corrine gives up. And before she emerges, Wendy slips around the corner: this is something they won’t be talking about.
Deftly presenting Corrine’s dilemma, these two scenes show how alone she feels in the midst of community and family, and also, how earnest she is in her efforts not to feel that way. At the same time, you glimpse what might best be described as an essential absurdity, too, or at least, the utter difficulty of faith. Corrine believes that faith is a good thing, and also that she’s seen evidence of God’s existence when, as a teenager, her infant daughter was miraculously saved from drowning when her husband’s rock-band van went off the road. But she can’t feel what she thinks she should feel. She can’t share in Annika’s blissful loss of self, she can’t stop wondering when she closes her eyes, and she’s skeptical of the set-up where wives are subordinate to their husbands.
At the same time, when Corrine looks at Wendy, caught up with drugs and (off-screen) bad men, she worries. Wendy’s not unlike their mother Kathleen (Donna Murphy), who sought fulfillment in men and other earthly pleasures. The film—based on This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, by Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe—shows this tension in a few vivid early scenes. The sisters watch helplessly as Kathleen loves CW (John Hawkes), but also rebels when he becomes jealous and drunk, in the only ways she can imagine. Watching her mother dress up and head out the door one evening, young Corrine (McKenzie Turner) whispers to herself the words she knows Kathleen wants to hear: “Tell her she looks pretty.” Instead, CW berates her, rips off her wig, insisting that she stay home, safe from the alluring world.
Corrine’s own search is inevitably shaped by observing her mother’s. One day in church, when Pastor Bud (Bill Irwin) urges his young charges to submit (“The lamb of God is knocking on the door to your heart!”), she wills herself to feel the call, raises her hand, and is rewarded with accolades. When Kathleen comes by to fetch her girls, Corrine sees another sort of reward, as mom and Pastor Bill flirt with one another: “I used to be a lifeguard,” he offers, as the restless camera keeps close on their gestures, noting Kathleen’s sighs and flutters, intimating Corrine’s look, what she’s absorbing if not understanding, quite.
By the time Corrine is a teenager (and played by the director’s sister, Taissa Farmiga), she’s found her own temptation, in the aspiring rock singer Ethan (played as a teen by Boyd Holbrook and an adult by Joshua Leonard). As much as they find a connection, they’re also easily convinced that their baby’s survival is a miracle, which leads them both to a born-again community led by Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) and his remarkably daunting helpmeet, Deborah (Barbara Tuttle). Here, Corrine struggles with her feelings, devoted to her children but also troubled by what she hears in Bill’s sermons, surely fond of Ethan, but wondering at his lack of curiosity.
Corrine’s rising doubt suffuses the film, but it’s mostly rendered subtly, until it becomes explosive. Corrine observes her fellows, sometimes moved to flirt with one (almost as if she can’t help but reflect her mother’s own, never answered questions), other times almost willing herself to believe. When Bill underlines “what makes us different from the world,” that is, “We believe without evidence,” Corrine wonders why. Deborah sets her straight, gently, when she takes her aside: “We have to be careful not to appear to be teaching the men.”
As complex as Corrine’s journey is, she finds her most difficult turn in her relationship with Annika, sanguine, trusting, and utterly sensual. Their moments together are deeply intimate, genuinely loving, and sometimes casually funny too (Annika shows off her many sketches of her husband’s penis, encouraging Corrine to come up with her own tributes to Ethan’s). But a devastating shift in their relationship makes Corrine question her own faith and, perhaps more devastatingly, Annika’s too.
Focused through Corrine’s view, High Ground articulates the intersections of faith and frustration, their interdependence as emotional experiences. She wants so much, and she imagines more, even as she sees limits everywhere.