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Vera Farmiga has been to Sundance several times as an actress, but this past weekend she made a triumphant return as a director, with “Higher Ground,” about a woman who after a more than a decade as part of a hippy fundamentalist community, begins to lose her faith. Farmiga was clearly touched by the occasion, getting a little verklempt while introducing the film.
“Welcome to the world premiere of ‘Higher Ground.’ I’m very moved and humbled, incredulous and deeply, deeply, grateful to the festival for its nurture and support. I wouldn’t be standing here today if I hadn’t stood here, I think in the exact same spot, for ‘Down to the Bone,’ and that was life changing. I’ve consistently stood on this stage with the films and the stories I’m most proud of, and inspired by, and with collaborations that have been the most meaningful to me.”
Looking on was Mother Farmiga.
“My mom is in the audience, where are you? I love you very much, mama. I know you want me to smile more in moves, so I tossed a few in there for you, and now I can’t stop smiling.”
The film is based on “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost,” by Carolyn Briggs, who, in the 1970s, along with several other families in the Hudson Valley combined counter-culture diets and styles with right-wing Christianity.
It follows young Corinne from her earliest days in Bible school earning disapproving looks for reading “Lord of the Flies,” to her romance with Ethan, the front man for a local rock band with whom she ultimately has a shotgun wedding, to their conversion to fundamentalist Christianity.
Of course, the kind of kid who reads “Lord of the Flies” probably isn’t long for such a life, where women aren’t allowed to preach, are blamed for men’s arousals and get scolded for “worshiping at the altar of yourself!”
Farmiga does a good job of trying to remain respectful of those who believe, while exploring how one woman can lose her way. The film is peppered with hilarious hallucinatory moments during which Corinne imagines herself gyrating in lingerie or getting a shrimp job from a female friend.
But for Farmiga this is not a story about religion, per se.
“It spoke to me on many different levels. It spoke to me as a daughter, it spoke to me as a mother, it spoke to me as a wife, it spoke to me as someone who is on her own spiritual journey, and the crossroads of faith and doubt have been there, in my journey. Just trying to figure it out, you know? In all those aspects of my life, and I think that we all have these choices and we’re all searching for clarity, we’re all wanting to be the best selves that we can be in those moments. Of not knowing, where you can either chose to be broken, break down, or be broken open and let that doubt, let that pain and let the confusion open your heart—that’s what spoke to me.
“It could’ve easily been set in any faith, any denomination, any…any setting of spirituality—even golf, whatever it is, that thing that drives you in life, that motivates you, that gives you peace and perseverance. For me, (religion) wasn’t the subject, this is not a film about whether religion is right or wrong, or Christianity—whether Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and nobody comes to life but by him—it’s not that. It’s not that, it’s a location; it’s not the subject of the film.”
“Higher Ground” is showing in the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance.