Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Sundance Review – ‘Higher Ground’ Achieves Higher Ground

Watching Higher Ground hit me hard, because Corinne’s first experience with Christian community was very close to mine.  I could fully identify with her struggles on the road to becoming fully human.  After watching this film, I went up to Vera Farmiga (who has acted in films such as Up in the Air and The Departed) and told her “Thanks for making such an honest and thoughtful film.”  Not only does Vera play the lead actress in Higher Ground, but this is her directing debut as well.

Corrine grows up going to church, raises her hand to “get saved” at a young age. But then her faith fades into the background.  After getting pregnant and married just out of high school, Corrine and her husband Ethan, after a near tragedy with their daughter, have a conversion experience.  They start a relationship with Christ and get involved with a fundamentalist Christian group.  While it is not unusual for Hollywood to paint one dimensional caricatures of Christians, making them unlovable people, the kind that you would never dream of being friends with, this film gives a three dimensional portrayal of life in an evangelical Christian church.  It is an honest film.  I know.  Because much of it I lived through in the first congregation that I become involved in after my own conversion.

Because the film is honest, much like Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, it not only shows this Christian community as lovable, sincere, intelligent and caring, but there are those haunting moments as well.  While the group loved God and immersed themselves in the scripture, their approach to scripture created an environment where there was no space for dialogue about issues that are debated in the church at large.

One of the many issues Corinne was wrestling through was the role of women in ministry.  In the film when Corrine would speak during the open sharing time, she was sometimes interrupted because she had moved from sharing a “testimony” to “preaching”. This was not allowed in this patriarchal congregation.  So while this congregation was loving and sincere, it became somewhat suffocating for Corrine, to the point that after 20 years of being a part of this community, she finally decided to leave.  While I highlight this particular issue, it is only a symptom of the larger cultural issue in the congregation that developed due to the leaders hermeneutical (art and science of interpretation) approach to scripture.

Throughout the film, Corrine has a deep yearning for God, and the film ends with her standing at the door of the church looking out and then looking in, as if she didn’t quite know which direction she wanted to go.

During the question and answer time after the film, one person stood up and asked Vera if Corrine was ridding herself of the faith or not.  Vera said, “She is not ridding herself of the faith, she is ridding herself from an impoverished faith.”

The following day after watching the film, we had Caroline Briggs, the Screen Writer of the film at the Windrider Forum, which is a forum that takes place during the Sundance Film Festival.  Besides having the opportunity to meet her, we were able to converse with her about many things, including about where she is at in her journey today, since this film is based on her life and memoir.  She said, “I call myself a Christian, because I believe in Jesus Christ, and I believe I have a relationship with him.  Do I think it is a strained one?  Yes.  Do I think I am a seeker? Yes.  I’ve been reading a lot of Emerson and I think that the Quakers would be a good home for me, but fundamentalism still just freaks me out.”

As I was contemplating this film, I couldn’t help but think about how vital our hermeneutical approach to scripture is, for it shapes the culture of our congregations.  If the church wants to minister to people like Corrine, we need to understand that the basic hermeneutical filter that Jesus’ operated with was loving God and loving others.  So the primary questions we must ask ourselves when we are interpreting the scriptures is: Does this interpretation help me love God and others more?  Is it life-giving and liberating?

The most meaningful thing Caroline Briggs said still rings in my ear.  Someone asked her, “With the film about your life out in public now, do you feel super naked or liberated?

After saying she never tells her students about her memoir because she would feel vulnerable if they were familiar with her life story, she said, “Our experience is all we have, and if we are not real about it, then it is wasted.  It’s what I have.  You know as an artist, I want to make a connection, and the only way that I’m going to make a connection with you is if I am honest. And so I can gloss it over, polish it up and be safe or I can say, look, this is what it feels like to me, to be me.  Is that universal, does anybody here else feel that? Are we together somehow on this?”  Those words will remain with me for some time.

Higher Ground achieved higher ground in my mind, with acting that helps you get lost in the story and directing that captures an honest glimpse of life in a loving, sincere Christian community who I just wish could have been exposed to some good classes in hermeneutics. If this is a taste Farmiga’s ability to direct, we can expect a lot of meaningful films from her in the future. I give this film a five out of five stars.  It made the list of my top films that I saw at Sundance.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival – Library Center Theatre –  Park City, Utah
Category: U.S. Dramatic Competition
Date Viewed: Wednesday, January 26th at 8:15 p.m.
Director: Vera Farmiga
Screenwriters: Carolyn S. Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Executive Producers: Jonathan Burkhart, Brice Dal Farra, Lauren Munsch
Producers: Claude Dal Farra, Renn Hawkey, Carly Hugo, Jon Rubinstein, Matt Parker
Cinematographer: Michael M Donough
Editor: Colleen Sharp
Production Designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Composer: Alec Puro
Principle Cast: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy

‘Higher Ground’ Sundance Review: Vera Farmiga’s Terrific Directorial Debut
Sundance: Vera Farmiga triumphs in the evangelicals-are-people-too drama ‘Higher Ground’
Higher Ground at Sundance by Craig Detweiler
Interview with Higher Ground director Vera Farmiga by David Moore
Sundance Review: Higher Ground by the Hollywood Reporter
Sundance Film Festival: Movies look at faith in all its forms – John Horn, LA Times

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