High note

Higher Ground
Ends today (Oct. 27). Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut is one of the really special surprises among this year’s indie films. Based on a personal memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, it portrays the spiritual struggles of a young woman trying to find her way in a small, close-knit community of evangelicals.

The woman is named Corinne, and we follow her story from youthful conversion to a series of increasingly serious bouts of faith and doubt. Farmiga plays the adult Corinne, and her deft, glowing performance is seamlessly conjoined to the characterizations of Corinne as a child (McKenzie Turner) and as a teenager (Taissa Farmiga, the director/star’s younger sister).

Corinne is intelligent and passionate, and deeply immersed in a species of fundamentalism that seems “liberal” in its celebration of the natural world and its pleasures and “conservative” in its casual subjugation of women. Most crucially, however, Corrine is alert to the contradictions in all this, but still vivaciously attuned to some sense of a higher calling.

The screenplay, co-written by Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, sets up an edgy mixture of sympathetic drama and low-key satire, and Farmiga’s direction (of the actors especially, but also of the camera with respect to secondary characters) brings multifaceted perspectives to the film’s most dramatic events. The overall approach is thoughtful, inquisitive and observant, but never simplistic and dogmatic.

With her pre-Raphaelite beauty and her wily, modern gaze, Farmiga is very much the face of the film. But the film and the characterization gain a good deal from the presence of a lively array of secondary characters with distinctive faces of their own. In addition to the two younger versions of Corinne, there are her quarrelsome parents (John Hawkes and Donna Murphy), her ebullient and ill-fated friend Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), her wayward sister (Nina Arianda), her musician husband Ethan (Boyd Holbrook as a teen, Joshua Leonard as an adult), and a couple of moderately charismatic pastors (Norbert Leo Butz and Bill Irwin).

The mixture of disparate elements is never entirely harmonious, let alone perfect, but the largeness of spirit in this production makes those imperfections pretty inconsequential.