Vera Farmiga usually arrests audiences with her trademark intense glare, which makes you want to embrace her and fear her at the same time. Her fierce portrayal of female characters with shady pasts put her on the map, and earned her an Oscar nomination for her role in 2009's Up in the Air. But it is last year's small town religious drama Higher Ground, her directorial debut, that may have Hollywood heads turning but audiences raising eyebrows.
Farmiga plays Corinne, a young mother grappling with her faith during a time when she desperately needs it. Or, when she feels should should have it. Her struggles aren't made entirely plain to the audience, but we feel we must root for her to attain whatever it is she so clearly yearns for in the movie simply because Farmiga's portrayal is so gentle yet so sad at the same time.
As her family continues to grow, we see Corinne evolve throughout the movie from an awkward teen (impressively played by Taissa Farmiga) to a slightly less awkward wife and mother of three. She and her God-fearing husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are diligent about raising their kids to be chips off the old block--prayerful churchgoers dedicated to the word of God. Meanwhile, Corinne is quietly conflicted by the error of her own faith--what it should look like and why, though well-intentioned, it is often a trajectory of her tight-knit church crowd.
As you watch Higher Ground, you'll notice how solid the performances are (including that of Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Corinne's friend). You'll also be taken by the sheer fragility of the story. But mostly you find yourself questioning how Farmiga got wrapped up in a movie like this filled with bible-thumping commentary. In fact, the most fascinating thing about the movie is that she's in it. It would be interesting to see whether the movie would have received as much acclaim had her name not been attached to it. It's an odd, off the beaten path, movie that doesn't necessarily go anywhere, make you feel anything, or lead you to examine faith. It rather presents a quaint coming-of-faith tale that's not especially captivating to watch.
It's respectful that Farmiga took on such a project, which really shows her range as an actress, if anything. But the target audience for the movie is unclear, and leaves you wondering whether it is indeed for you. And, if it isn't for you, who is it it for?