New-Release Tuesday: Higher Ground

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

      Lord, lift me up and let me stand
      By faith on heaven’s table land
      A higher plane than I have found
      Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

The century-old hymn from which the title of Higher Ground was taken creatively and agonizingly depicts the “upward” path that religious groups exhort their members to follow. The film adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost is a tour de force, chronicling the ups, downs, ins, outs, and throughs that church life often embodies.

From the opening scene of a “Jesus Movement”-era gathering where numerous baptisms are occurring, Higher Ground unflinchingly exposes the heights and depths of a faith unfulfilled and doggedly searching for something more. Corinne, a strong-willed and independent woman (captured quintessentially by Vera Farmiga, who also directed the film), carries the film into the disquieting realms of church life, religion, relationships, and faith.

Following the opening baptism sequence, we are brought back to Corinne’s childhood—from her first decision to follow Jesus as a pre-teen at Vacation Bible School to her high school years, when Ethan, a budding rock band musician, captures her heart. In the ensuing wedding, Corinne appears in a maternity bridal gown, happily cutting the wedding cake with Ethan as they prepare for a lifestyle of touring with the band. When the driver of the band’s RV loses control and careens into a river one night, Corinne and Ethan agree that God miraculously saved them and their baby, prompting them to put their faith in Him. Thus we return to the Jesus People baptism from the opening, watching as Ethan and Corinne respond to the promise of abundant life in Christ and devotion to Him.

      I’m pressing on the upward way
      New heights I’m gaining every day
      Still praying as I onward bound
      “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Through the house church they attend, Corinne makes friends with Annika, an earthy yet devoted believer who cheers Corinne and brings vitality into her life. At the same time, Corinne becomes the focus of the preacher’s wife, who picks at Corinne’s words, demeanor, clothing, and other minutiae—gently, perhaps, but also condescendingly, chafing Corinne’s already-forming doubts about “abundant life.” As Corinne’s sense of a lack of fulfillment increases, she and Ethan grow apart: Ethan devoted to the church and its inflexible teachings, Corinne feeling less and less motivated to be involved. Ultimately, when tragedy strikes the church—and Corinne particularly heavily—she is forced to choose between an unfulfilling life of dogma and one in which she can remain true to herself.

      My heart has no desire to stay
      Where doubts arise and fears dismay
      Tho’ some may dwell where these abound
      My prayer, my aim is higher ground.

The film’s soundtrack is taken from well-known hymns, effectively luring any long-ago church member into a sea of churchy memories, good or not. Because the hymns are well-known, the soundtrack becomes as evocative as the myriad expressions on Corinne’s face as she weathers the trials of her waning faith, weakened marriage, personal tragedy, and ultimately her final departure into the “outside” with the dogs (a reference to Revelation 22:15, used in a counseling session earlier in the film: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”)

      I want to live above the world
      Tho’ Satan’s darts at me are hurled
      For faith has caught the joyful sound
      The song of saints on higher ground

Farmiga’s direction and characterization are impeccable. Despite a Ukrainian Catholic background, she depicts the inside of evangelicalism with stunning expertise. As Corinne, she brings the viewer into her dissatisfaction with religion surprisingly free of emotional manipulation; as director, she pulls from every character the expressions, relational problems, and core values that play into Corinne’s experience.

Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to discern what Corinne’s final decision is, the closing of the film being deliberately ambiguous. What we do know is that Corinne is satisfied that she has found a place of higher ground, whether it is the church’s or not. What exactly is the “higher ground,” anyway? Is it closer to God? The lyrics of the song itself do little to enlighten us. Perhaps it is akin to an Escher-esque staircase, where one is constantly climbing upward but never actually rising–everyone on the same path, and actually at the same level. Perhaps the film asks: is there really such a thing as lower ground?

Ultimately, Higher Ground asks questions without offering answers. It begs viewers to think about what higher ground they want to reach, how to reach it, and what it will be like on the way up. Is it faith? Abandonment of faith? Service? Being true to oneself? Becoming closer to God? Being more Christ-like?

Most of the words in this review were written by my wife, Jenn, who wrote about the film when it was released in 2011. The quest for “higher ground” was the great struggle of her life, even though others may have thought physical calamity preoccupied her. In the end, she did truly find a certain transcendence, and perhaps Farmiga’s film helped her along the way. “If I am ever to reach higher ground,” Jenn concluded, “I’ll need a hand from the One who went up first.”

      I want to scale the utmost height
      And catch a gleam of glory bright
      But still I’ll pray till heaven I’ve found
      “Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”