It's not easy to pull off a drama centered on religion. Go at it too strong and you're branded as heavy-handed, go at it too light and the story doesn't create the necessary pull to interest the viewer. Like it or not religion is a big part of many people's lives. People worship in their own ways, no matter how crazy it may seem to outsiders looking in.
'Higher Ground' is the directorial debut of actor Vera Farmiga ('Up in the Air'). She also stars as Corinne Walker. When Corinne was young she was a rebellious soul. She got pregnant at a young age and followed her wannabe rock star husband on the road. After a near-death experience during one of the road trips, the couple turn to God, citing what just happened as a miracle. They soon join a congregation that some would call fanatical, and others would call joyful. It's all personal perception.
The sect that Corinne joins is all about male dominance. The males take over teaching and instructing while the women sit and listen. Corinne struggles with this. Her inner rebel finds it hard to hold back.
'Higher Ground' is a subtle commentary on religious life. It never makes snap judgments and never actually takes any sides. It's about a young girl trying to find her way in life by any means possible.
Farmiga takes a touchy, hot-button topic such as religion and its practice and creates a very sincere, heartfelt film. Whether these characters are right or wrong isn't for us to judge. This isn't a movie that has any startling life-altering revelations, instead these characters are influenced here and there by life. Their way of coping is with religion. It's the only way they know how to get through the trials they're faced with.
This is a movie that isn't worried so much about its ending as how it gets there. Watching Corinne navigate her life is both touching and frustrating. We may find ourselves wondering what could be worse that the situation she's in right now? However, the movie never picks sides. She encounters obstacles, but they're ones everyone faces sooner or later.
There's a truly touching (and very funny) moment in the movie where Corinne wants so badly to be like her best friend Annika. Annika claims to be able to speak in tongues and does so easily. Corinne is amazed by her abilities and tries to perform the same act at home in the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, like many of us would do if we were practicing a big speech or presentation, Corinne tries earnestly to speak in tongues, but it doesn't flow. Frustrated, she gives up, but it doesn't cause her to give up on her faith. She's stalwart in her belief which is commendable. She has questions, yes, but don't we all.
'Higher Ground' is a quiet, somber tale of life, acceptance, and faith. Best of all you don't have to be religious to find Farmiga's acting and directing powerful and moving. Truly one of the unsung movies of 2011.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Sony Pictures Classics release. It's been packed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase and comes complete with a DVD and Blu-ray copy of the movie. The Blu-ray is a 50GB disc. It's labeled on the back cover as Region A only.
Sony does another great job with a low-budget indie movie. Shot digitally, the 1080p Blu-ray presentation never has the flat, lifeless feel that many low-budget digital movies have. It feels much more cinematic.
Detail is outstanding. While the film takes on a slightly softer look in order to showcase the time period, we still get quite a lot of exquisite detail. Hair and skin are perfectly defined. Individual strands of Farmiga's hair can be seen blowing in the wind. Textures like the woodgrain of the church benches or they rocky brickwork of the church's exterior add life to the screen.
Colors are down played ever so slightly. There are times were colors like Annika's red dress shine, but most of the time we're left with a soft palette dominated by off-whites and earth tones. I didn't notice any glaring artifacts except for a few instances of very minor banding. Sony has done it again. They treat their independent films with care when it comes to transferring them to Blu-ray and 'Higher Ground' is no exception.
Heavy on the dialogue, light on just about everything else, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track for 'Higher Ground' does what is asked of it. Dialogue, which is the most important part of any drama of this nature is clean and clear. It's always intelligible even during scenes with hushed or whispered talking.
There are a few moments when the rear speakers get to perk up like when young Corinne's pastor is preaching to her group of friends in a cavernous cathedral. His voice echoes and reverberates through the back speakers creating a very lifelike audio environment. LFE is, as you might have guessed, almost non-existent. Save for a concert scene and a bus crash the bass stays pretty silent. Those couple scenes that feature low-end frequencies offer nice rumbling and thumping bass.
Considering the type of film this is, I'd say that 'Higher Ground' has a surprisingly active sound mix which is presented very nicely on Blu-ray.
It's easy for movies focused on religion to come across as heavy-handed. Nobody likes to feel they're being preached to, but 'Higher Ground' doesn't do that. It never comes right out and says which way of living it believes is right, or if there is even one right path. It's simply the story of a woman who gains and loses her faith. She uses her family and herself to try and figure out what's most important to her in her life. For a first time directorial gig, I think Farmiga nailed it. The strong video and audio scores simply bolster my recommendation of this Blu-ray release.