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“Standing up for God isn’t easy,” proclaims an evangelical Christian at the beginning of the Vera Farmiga–directed Higher Ground. Indeed, Hollywood in particular has had a tough time of it, with religion-themed films often either targeting a niche audience (Color of the Cross) or going for parody (Saved!). Kudos to Higher Ground, then, for presenting a drama that just happens to be about Christianity, a story that should draw viewers regardless of their faith.
If only that weren’t the best thing it had going for it. Farmiga also stars in the film as Corinne, a woman who, along with her young husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard), decides to go hardcore Christian after a car accident nearly kills their baby. (In these early scenes, Corinne is played by Taissa Farmiga, unmistakably Vera’s sister.)
They become part of a small, close-knit group of evangelicals, who school them on “Christian” sex (“Clitoral stimulation is part of God’s plan!”), how to dress (off-the-shoulder frocks are a no-no), and what you’re allowed to say to the group (“You came dangerously close to preaching,” a woman schools Corinne after she’s moved to speak). And though Corinne tries to comply, even praying for the ability to speak in tongues like her friend (Dagmara Dominczyk), eventually all the tsking starts to wear her down.
The problem is that Corinne’s doubt, or at least her explicit expression of it, doesn’t come soon enough (although we do see a lot of Farmiga staring out into the distance). Until Corinne admits to her fellow believers that she can’t feel God in her heart, the film meanders, showing what a life of faith involves but not much else. (A bit of tension comes from Corinne’s relationship with her decidedly secular sister, but it feels like an afterthought.) Mostly, the story sticks with Corinne and Ethan praising Jesus with the others, which, though respectfully done, gets dull quickly. Farmiga’s directing, like her character, is unexceptional but not a failure. It’s a debut she can be proud of, even if its narrative could have benefited from a little divine intervention.