Higher Ground

Higher Ground

Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika and Vera Farmiga as Corinne Walker. Photo by Molly Hawkey. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Higher Ground (2011)

Opened: 08/26/2011 Limited

Lincoln Plaza08/26/2011 - 10/13/201149 days
Angelika/NYC08/26/2011 - 09/15/201121 days
The Landmark08/26/2011 - 09/15/201121 days
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Village East09/16/2011 - 10/06/201121 days
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Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home

Genre: Drama

Rated: R for some language and sexual content.


Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, HIGHER GROUND, depicts the landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off-kilter when one of their own begins to question her faith. Inspired by Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, This Dark World (screenplay by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe & Carolyn S. Briggs), the film tells the story of a thoughtful woman's struggles with belief, love, and trust--in human relationships as well as in God.

As a young girl growing up on a Midwest farm, Corinne (McKENZIE TURNER) experiences both the warmth of a loving family and the unease of a household frayed by conflict. Her father CW (JOHN HAWKES)--wiry and funny--and her mother Kathleen (DONNA MURPHY)--beautiful and very pregnant--clearly love each other. But when Kathleen's baby dies at birth, her grief turns to sour discontentment, and CW turns to angry drinking. Corinne and her younger sister Wendy (TAYLOR SCHWENCKE) witness the marriage as it unravels.

Religion makes its first imprint on Corinne at Vacation Bible School, where Corinne is moved (perhaps more by a spirit of experimentation than by the Holy Spirit) to proclaim herself Saved. Pastor Bud (BILL IRWIN) seems to be equally moved by the sight of Corinne's mother in shorts and a low-cut top.

As the years pass, teenaged Corinne (TAISSA FARMIGA) becomes a high school poet, while Wendy (KAITLYN RAE KING) becomes a track star. Quiet and self-contained though she is, Corinne captures the interest of Ethan (BOYD HOLBROOK), the handsome front man of the school rock band, The Renegades. From writing songs together to making love, the two are a soul match, and soon Corinne finds herself in a maternity wedding dress, with Baby Abby arriving shortly after. The newlyweds struggle with their radically altered fates: would-be writer Corinne cares for Abby while would-be rock star Ethan literally splits rocks as a stone worker. Their shared love for Abby helps their bond persevere.

One night, driving the Renegades band bus to a gig with Corinne and Abby on board, Ethan swerves off the road, and tragedy is narrowly averted. In the aftermath of the close call, Ethan and Corinne feel that God has saved them, and is calling on them to change their lives. They find their way to a religious community of evangelical Christians, a small, intimate church group whose worship seems joyous and open-hearted. As comfortable praying in nature as inside a church, the community, with their long-haired men and peasant-bloused women, has a welcoming, unconventional vibe. Adult Corinne (VERA FARMIGA) and Ethan (JOSHUA LEONARD) embrace the loving new family their community provides.

For Corinne, her close friendship with Annika (DAGMARA DOMINCZYK) opens her up to a whole new way of being in the world. Rapturous about Jesus, Annika is also wholeheartedly alive to earthly delights; striking, sexy, brash and passionate, Annika is equally at ease talking about carnality and conversing in tongues with the Holy Spirit.

But for all the seeming openness of the church, Corinne rubs up against strictures: when she stands up in church to talk about her spiritual insights, she is gently but firmly rebuked for "coming dangerously close to preaching" -- the woman's place is to hold back and leave the teachings to the men. When she wears a dress that draws a church brother's compliment, she is told to be careful not to tempt the menfolk. Throughout the years and two more babies, Annika is Corinne's confidante and fellow spirit, while Ethan seems to relate to her more through the orthodoxy of church teachings.

The Christian zeal that permeates every moment of Corinne and Ethan's life is uncomfortable for Corinne's divorced parents and feckless sister Wendy, whose life has gone a bit off the rails into bad relationships and druggie associates. Nevertheless, they all make efforts in their own ways to maintain the connection; Corinne's little daughter wonders aloud how they can be such kind and loving people without having been saved by Jesus.

While these everyday frictions wear away at Corinne's devotion, a tragedy deeply undermines her faith. Annika is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor; though she survives surgery, she is left mute and curled within herself in a wheelchair, wearing a grimace that could be pain and despair or merely neurological after-effects. It's impossible for Corinne to know if the Annika she loves is still trapped within her wracked body or gone forever. The church community's prayers and thanks for Annika's survival ring hollow to Corinne.

As she withdraws from her faith, Corinne withdraws from Ethan, as well. Conflicts that could be seen as average marital discontentment are magnified by the church's doctrine of wifely subservience. Ethan explodes in rage at Corinne's show of independence. A Christian marriage counselor intones darkly that Corinne is "worshipping at the altar of yourself." And when Corinne leaves the marriage and the home, she is cut off and shut out by the church community.

Still, the possibility of compassionate grace and forgiveness survives in Corinne. She visits the church and speaks eloquently about her loss of faith and her envy of their certainty. She is still the loving mother, daughter, and sister. And she reaches across the rift in her marriage to show Ethan her love if not reconciliation.

Faith, love and honesty are the cornerstones of this story of a woman who learns that no matter how many times she loses her footing, she has within herself all that's necessary to get to a higher place.

Director's Statement

Becoming a mother has changed me as an artist and storyteller. Now that I am asked so many questions by my children, I have never been more sure of not knowing the answers. I read Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, This Dark World, and was touched by her testimony, its candor, humor, and honesty about the very topic of "not knowing." Her journey of self-discovery resonated with me on every level as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, and a mother.

I am also a sucker for a good love story. Our story follows a twenty-year span of all the love relationships in Corinne's life. It stacks and studies the four tiers of love: agape, eros, philia and storge [unconditional love, romantic love, love of family and friends, fond affection]. It was especially relevant and unique to me in the way it represents female friendship--as a refuge in harmony, not conflict or competition, as is often represented between women in film. While the men in the story are also full, rich characters, the story stresses that love between women is important. We see in each other the woman that we would love to be.

I thought this had the makings of an unusual and important film. The choices and truths it explores are universal: we're all seekers, longing for meaning. We all want a better sense of self. We all, on some level or another, experience moments full of doubt and questioning, feeling disappointed or disillusioned, in need of clarity. Why not throw all these notions up on the screen and see what sticks?

The film asks: is it possible for faith and doubt to coexist? What is a healthy soul? What holds us back from inner growth? Christianity is the "location" of the film, not the subject, concern, or issue. The film could have been set just as easily in a variety of faiths or cultures. I have a deep respect for all religions; I'm most familiar with Christianity. I did not want to make a film about the rights and wrongs of religion. I wanted to be reverent and respectful, and I did not want to infect the story with bias. It is about those moments in life where you lose sight of who you are, what you believe, and where you are going. Those moments of stumbling. The film is about finding your footing, finding higher ground.

-- Vera Farmiga, Director

Director's Q&A

What made you want to direct this script?

The thing that hitched me to directing it was its tricky tone. As the script evolved, it became a genre-defying film--a story of self-discovery, a romance, a dark comedy, a tender account of female friendship, and even a musical exploring the complex themes of faith and doubt.

I was attached to the project as an actress with honestly no intention of directing. After three years of script development with Tim Metcalf and an intense year of reshaping and rewrites with Carolyn S. Briggs and my husband Renn Hawkey, my heart was invested in a new and profound way. I'd never been a part of script evolution before. In the process, my own psyche, perceptions, and in particular, sense of humor entered the equation. Carolyn and I aimed to insert as much comedy and lightness into Corinne's journey as we could, with tact and diplomacy--not poking fun of the characters, but allowing them to have fun. Mixing spirituality and humor was going to be a tall, delicate order.

Carolyn was the real life model for Corinne. She believed I understood the spirit of the film, the complexities of the character's struggles and search. With her validation and plea, I knew I should direct.

How did the subject matter allow you to explore or challenge some of your own thoughts on religion and faith?

This film explores a notion I've experienced my whole life--that the spiritual life is hard to master. Great faith requires great striving. Whether we call it religion or faith, we all battle for a balanced, integrated soul. The protagonist in my film is searching for an authentic faith. The film examines her struggles within all the love relationships in her life--with her parents, her children, her friends, her community, and in her marriage, her relationship to God, and her relationship to self. The examination proves just how porous and murky a spiritual path can be at times. It embraces the gray of black-and-white religion.

It can't be that easy to just jump in and start directing without experience--have you been learning on the job as an actor?

I've had the great fortune of working with the finest directors, both heavyweight champions of cinema and rookies. They've all rubbed off on me in one positive way or another; in particular, Debra Granik [Down to the Bone, 2004] and Anthony Minghella [Breaking and Entering, 2006]. From them I learned the importance of kind and affectionate leadership. Even the not-so-great experiences, being directed (and limited) by the occasional egotistical know-it-all, have been helpful.

Honestly, it was pretty easy to jump in and take control. I think most anybody with vision, ideas, taste, awareness, instinct, and the will, can direct. I don't think an extensive film education or film history is compulsory. I had rock stars for department heads to bolster my vision; Michael McDonough, director of photography; Sharon Lomofsky, production designer; and Amela Baksic, costumes. With their creative contributions came certitude that I could direct without experience.

What was the most challenging part of the process as a director?

Most challenging was self-editing. Editing is not a part of the filmmaking process I've ever been privy to as an actress. Editing yourself is like an irksome coin toss. You've got to strip yourself of super ego and operate from the id. (Maybe I've got my Freud mixed up.) It's just hard to trade a beauty shot for the performance with truth and a brightly lit zit.

Did also being the director affect the way you performed on camera in any way?

I sincerely don't think so. Normally I rely heavily on my director to massage me out of my actor comfort zones. I relied instead on my scene partners, my script supervisor, my focus puller, and my husband/producer for feedback. We didn't always have time for playback and review, so I went by the affirmation or sheepishness of their gaze. I never moved on without their thumbs up. But I'd like to think that most often my instinct and bullshit meter told me when to cut and print.

It sounds like a tight crew in every sense of the word.

It required herculean effort on the part of my producers to meet the budget. We started off with 58 shooting locations that, by production, were reduced to 38. There were 21 live music performances. Lots of principle actors, lots of extras, many non-actors. Different eras which required frequent costume and hair changes. Animals. Children. Bus crashes. Epic stuff, for minimal funds.

I sacrificed things like actor creature comforts in exchange for sufficient and capable crew. My crew was nonpareil. I worked them like mules. My own 5-month pregnancy was a good damper for complaints. No matter how bad the crew ever had it, they knew I had it worse.

My husband, as creative producer and music director, was the jewel in my crown. I feel supremely and equally yoked to the guy. I value his opinion and perspective above any; he was my resounding sounding board. He has extraordinary diplomacy, savoir faire, and charm that make him an excellent producer and communicator with actors. If anybody had a problem with anything, I'd sic Renn on them and he'd cajole them out of their misery.

This film goes to unusual places in American culture and psyche--it's not mainstream storytelling. Have any other filmmakers or artists especially influenced you?

I would say key influences in general would be Jon Cassavetes for his realism, Luis Bunuel for his surrealism, Debra Granik for her honesty, precision and non-bias, Ingmar Bergman for heartache, and Pedro Almodovar for his themes of passion, desire, family and identity. The Apostle (1997) is my number one reference film for this project. Robert Duvall's performance and direction was a case study for me.