Higher Ground (2011)
‘Higher Ground’ is Vera Farmiga’s debute as a director and you’re not likely to find many rookies who can tell a story this compelling. I admit that I was caught up in the narrative because it resonated with my own history, specifically as a Christian who entered the religion through Pentecostalism. Now the movie is not about Pentecostalism, but as I will describe below the phenomenon of glossolalia is a prominent part of the story. The official blurb says the movie, “…depicts the landscape of a tight-knit spiritual community thrown off-kilter when one of their own begins to question her faith.” This is true, but it is about so much more than that. That description comes across as a bit too generic.
The main character Corinne Walker (Farmiga herself as the adult version, also played by McKenzie Turner as a child and Farmiga’s daughter Taissa as a teen) finds herself married and pregnant at a young age. Eventually she finds Jesus and joins a church. While A.O. Scott of the NY Times says the movie seems to depict a mainline Protestant church (see his review “Navigating between Faith and Skepticism”) I think it is much closer to a mixture of the fundamentalism, the Jesus People, and the cult like characters in ‘Jesus Camp‘.
Many of the relational dynamics reminded me of my own family. While my father is not a Christian (and Ethan Walker played by Joshua Leonard does convert) Corinne Walker’s relationship to her church reminds me of my own mother. The church accepts her at a hard time in her life and then goes straight to reforming her behavior in order for her to belong the community. For Walker this means things like changing how she dresses lest she “tempt the brothers” and a warning that her testimony came close to “teaching men”, something that the pastor’s wife finds unacceptable based on her interpretation of some biblical passages. As someone who was raised in a Oneness Pentecostal church this type of behavior development is very familiar to me. Likewise, the impact that these changes have on family relationships was something I’ve seen happen in my own life.
Even more familiar were the three scenes where glossolalia or “speaking in tongues” became the focal point. In one scene Walker and her best friend are in a boat praying and her friend begins to speak in tongues. Walker stares in amazement, asks what it is, calls it beautiful, expresses jealousy that she doesn’t have it, and tells her friend she knows God will give it to her. If you have ever sought the gift of tongues (something I believe is real, though often abused) you know these very emotions. In fact, for many in Pentecostal circles there can be much distress when seeking this experience only to find it doesn’t seem available to you. In some groups this can cause suspicion because you must have some sort of sin preventing God from blessing you. All the emotions of being a child in Pentecostalism were renewed as I watched her mixture of desire and doubt.
In a later scene she stands in the bathroom before the mirror trying to evoke the experience. She forces odd utterances that sound more like a wild animal than an angelic language. Her troubled sister stands outside the restroom door listening and laughing. Again, you can feel the pain if you’ve been the person trying to speak in tongues.
Finally, Corinne tells her husband and he gives what I call “the Baptist response”: it is likely demonic, God is not a God of confusion, test the spirits. As someone who affirms this experience I have heard these things from Christians. There is the great irony that some of the most conservative “Bible-believing” Christians can be so, well, modernist!
Walker does test the spirits. The second half of the film is her testing the truthfulness of her worldview. After her friend’s life is changed forever because of a serious health issue she sees that God doesn’t always answer prayer. Walker’s faith begins to unravel before everyone. This is where the aforementioned blurb is correct. If you have ever been part of a small community where you began to express doubts in the commonly held beliefs of the group please watch this movie! It is quite obvious that the writer (this movie is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ book This Dark World) has been through what the movie depicts. Suddenly the pastor looks at her with shame, the people whisper, the husband is both sanctimonious and tortured by his wife’s seeming loss of faith.
I won’t say more than this because I don’t want to spoil any of the essential storyline. My recommendation is go watch this film. It is directed very well. The actors nail their stereotypical parts. And if you’ve been through anything remotely familiar your heart with be beating all over again with some of the raw emotion that is all too familiar for those of us who have doubted if we belong.
See the Higher Ground website here.