Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Higher Ground (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Higher Ground 

I'll admit, when I went into my favorite theater space, The George, to see "Higher Ground", I thought that I might be in for a spiritual lashing. Perhaps something obsequious or cartoonish that means to be irreverent but ends up to be merely boring or self righteous as in the film "Saved!" (2004) or the  daring but uncomfortably preachy "The Tree of Life". Both extremes are perhaps the penance that I can expect to endure as I usually get the shivers from being overtly preached to, especially in cinema.  

But thankfully miracles happen and "Higher Ground" is a compelling thoughtful film that shows evangelical church members as real people and not mere ecstatic zombies going though the motions. Not since Michael Tolkin's "Rapture" (1991) has there been a film that takes on the magnetism of  faith, showing both its solidifying comforts and eerie manias. 

Vera Farmiga directs this film and stars as Corinne an idealistic believer who gets swept off her feet by Ethan, (Boyd Holbrook) a blonde Christian rock musician who is half Joel Osteen and half Jim Morrison. Ethan is no cartoon. There is authenticity here. Ethan truly wants to change the world and walk as Jesus himself did, without irony and with intention. Ethan and his friends might be thought of as "Jesus Freaks" yet their portrayals and actions are delineated as is, without ridicule or exaggeration. I have spent time in Pentecostal churches and Seventh Day Adventist Sunday school classes and have met people very much like the characters in this film. 

No matter what your personal belief or non-belief philosophy, "Higher Ground" does not judge. We see these people for who they really are: quaint, good hearted people, prone to risqué fantasy and mistakes in temper like everyone else.

Corrine is shown right away to be more of an agnostic than a believer. At one point, while having sex, she sees a wild boar. Even Evangelical Christians can be bestial. There is also a scene where she is frowned upon for checking out a library book---Lord of the Flies. Freedom of thought is frowned upon. And church crosses move past her like mystical birds of Judgement.
Nevertheless, Corrine has a baby with Ethan. Once married they go on the road and there is a crash due to Ethan's pot smoking.

The group becomes increasingly rigid and Corrine becomes increasingly alienated. Ethan, now played by Joshua Leonard, becomes older and plump, strumming the guitar only at home. Most every aspect of their life is cloaked in Evangelical thought.

Corrine becomes sexually frustrated and retreats to her friend Kathleen (Donna Murphy) for escape. Kathleen is devout but sexual: she likes the shape of a man's penis. 

Although there are a few Ally Mcbealish fantasy scenes, "Higher Ground" does not stoop to preach, pander or pontificate. This particular commune is shown with all its crinkles and hopeful crusades. This group may be well-meaning but it is prone to selfishness and rigidity just like any other group.

"Higher Ground" is  a character study. Vera Farmiga as a director shows terrific courage for lifting the veil of Christian fundamentalism, showing its idealism with irreverence , while never belittling faith. What may work for some may not work for others. Farmiga is not afraid to also delineate the  robotic patterns of thought. Her camera is at once Grand in Faith and Gothic in caution. "Higher Ground" is ultimately humanistic, arguing for an open book, be it a Bible or better yet, something else.

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