Higher Ground

Reviewed by Juanita Wright Potter

This week a friend forwarded an article from USA Today (20 July 2012) about the 2011 Pew Research Center survey of religious affiliation in the United States. The newspaper article opens with: “People who check ‘None’ for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%), the highest ever documented.”

But what really caught my attention was this statement: “. . . the chief way the category grows is by ‘switchers.’ A 2009 Pew Forum look at ‘switching’ found more that 10% of American adults became ‘Nones’ after growing up within a religious group.” This indicates that sometimes the combination of rationality and immersion in a religious group can become a path to unbelief.

The film Higher Ground is a story about a rational woman, Corinne Walker (the adult Corinne is played by the gifted Vera Farmiga, who also directed the film), trying to find some solid footing within the context of being literally immersed (baptism is the strong opening image in the film) within the subculture of evangelical fundamentalism. (A context I recognize viscerally from my years at a fundamentalist Bible college, working for a fundamentalist missionary organization and a fundamentalist publisher, and, yes, even getting a graduate degree in journalism/communications from fundamentalist Wheaton College [Illinois].)

A still from the movie "Higher Ground"
Bill Irwin as Pastor Bud.
Photo by Molly Hawkey.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

We are given brief scenes of Corinne during her childhood on a farm, going to Vacation Bible School in a church where she tentatively raises her hand during an “everyone close your eyes; no one looking around” altar call and is appalled at being publicly called out the moment she does so. (Bill Irwin as Pastor Bud is a stunningly good, manipulative minister with a microphone in this scene.)

Quick move forward to Corinne as a teenager (played brilliantly by Vera’s very-much younger sister Taissa Farmiga) in a small-town high school, checking out forbidden books in the small-town library (on the top of her stack is Lord of the Flies by William Golding and The Woman Destroyed by Simone Beauvoir).

Then the pivotal moment of meeting Ethan—soon-to-be boyfriend and sooner-than-expected husband and father of her child. He is the lead singer of the high school’s rock band—“The Renegades”; she is a shy, bookish girl, scribbling “words and thoughts” in a small notebook—while everyone else appears to be laughing and talking together at the end of a school day.

Ethan asks her to help him write a song for the Renegades —and, well, we all know the power of poetry . . .

Still Image from the movie "Higher Ground"
Boyd Holbrook as teenage Ethan,
Taissa Farmiga as teenage Corinne,
and Flynn Hawkey as baby Abigail.
Photo by Michael McDonough.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

And we all know the power of trauma . . . which is how Ethan suddenly decides he needs “God” in his life . . . which takes the form of joining a small, evangelical church. He jumps in whole-heartedly, without much thought.

Corinne thinks—all the time. This is the main point of conflict throughout the film. Thought vs. parroting words. Questions vs. smiling acquiescence.

And Corinne tries— for around 15 years—but, as she says toward the end of the film: “I need all of this to be real, and I don’t always know how to make it real. I don’t know how to make it real.”

It has been about 33 years (symbolism, anyone?) since I stopped accepting the worldview of fundamentalist evangelicalism. I was taken by surprise while watching this film by how much I had forgotten the subtle cruelties inflicted by the well-meaning. How frequently the strong positive message of “God created and loves this world” segues to “we all know we all truly deserve to be poked with hot sticks forever”—which leads to people poking themselves and each other with hot sticks of criticism and guilt and rudeness, without thought.

I was also taken by surprise at how compassionate I felt toward the men in the film (even the guy threatening Corinne with instant death followed by hell forever, if she dares leave Ethan). They are trying their best to be “the teachers,” “the Heads of their Households,” the ones with all the answers, as they were being taught they were to be. But, in fact, they are not well-educated nor well-experienced nor, shall we say, gifted in the art of listening. I remember many men like them. They are so sweet and well-meaning, but apparently clueless about how to relate to people, including themselves.

It is a dangerous thing to teach young men that they know it all. And it is an exceedingly dangerous thing to teach young women to follow whatever those young men say or do.

My first deeply personal response to my first viewing of this film was to be very, very grateful that I did not marry anyone during the 10 years that I was a part of this subculture. Parts of Higher Ground seem like a film version of a very early Philip Yancey book titled After the Wedding (1976). I actually give that book a lot of credit for helping me to not get married during those formative years, because never has a more dismal picture of reality in marriage been written than the true-life stories within those pages of young couples trying to figure out what all that evangelical teaching about “headship” and “submission” could possibly mean.

Still from the movie "Higher Ground"
Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika
and Vera Farmiga as “Corinne”(Carolyn Briggs) pray together
in a pedal boat in this scene from the film, Higher Ground. 
Photo by Molly Hawkey.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

My second deeply personal response was to love the warm, close friendship that develops between Corrine and Annika (played with amazing grace and verve by Dagmara Dominczyk), because it reminded me of the many good women friends that I have stayed connected with through it all. The great secret of the evangelical fundamentalist subculture is that there is a sub-subculture of women looking out for each other as best they can, no matter what. The way women share our lives through deep conversations affects our decisions and paths more that we can properly account for, just as Corinne was helped to take a step beyond what she had thought possible by a personal tragedy striking Annika at her core.

Higher Ground is definitely not an “action film” in the usual sense, but it is full of Inner Action and Interaction that truly lights up the screen, thanks to the excellent script, acting, directing, and editing.

There is way more to this complex, carefully articulated story than I can convey in this short piece. Probably no two people will experience this film in exactly the same way, but it is a very important film for everyone to see.

Netflix categorizes Higher Ground as “heartfelt, understated.” I would add “cerebral, visionary, true-to-life.”

For related reading on our website, see Kendra Weddle’s review of the Carolyn Briggs memoir on which the movie is based and an interview-profile of Carolyn Briggs by Letha Dawson Scanzoni.  To see the official trailer for Higher Ground, click here.

 

Copyright 2012 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, Vol. 36, Nos.1-2 (Spring-Summer, 2012).

 

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