The quiet drama Higher Ground gives the impression it could go on forever, watching its protagonist’s life unfold bit by bit: There are no big beats, no climax, barely even a sense of building narrative. In adapting her memoir This Dark World, screenwriter Carolyn Briggs (working with co-writer Tim Metcalfe and first-time director Vera Farmiga) resisted the urge to slant her life story to lead viewers to specific, facile conclusions. But while it feels organic and personal as a result—particularly in the details of the ’70s setting, with its terrible clothes and shifting morality—it’s also a shapeless collection of tonally diverse moments strung together with little organizing principle beyond the protagonist’s identity struggles.
After a high-school romance, an unplanned pregnancy, an abrupt wedding, and an accident-fueled religious conversion, a young couple (Farmiga and Humpday’s Joshua Leonard, both of whom deliver deeply accomplished performances) wind up at the center of a tight-knit, conservative Christian society. Over time, though, Farmiga’s faith wavers, along with her sense of belonging and comfort in her community. Her story plays out as an aggregation of disassociated incidents, where she takes in her adult sister after a bad breakup, or gets chided for minor infractions of her church’s mores, like “coming dangerously close to preaching” when she speaks extemporaneously at a church meeting. But while individual scenes are often painful, funny, or both (like the scene strangely detached from Farmiga’s POV, as the men of her church awkwardly endure sex-ed tips from a cassette-tape lecture series) little of it fits together into a coherent picture. It’s tempting to draw lines between, say, the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and her troubles with her own husband, but the connections are never clear, and the film too often assumes viewers understand her inner conflicts, and sympathize.
At times, Higher Ground feels like a lower-stakes Welcome To The Dollhouse for adults: It’s a systematically built portrait of disappointment and despair, centering on a perpetual underdog looking for affection and surety in any possible form. But while Higher Ground is less painful than Dollhouse, it’s also less passionate. The only enduring impact comes from Farmiga’s relationship with an earthy free spirit (Dagmara Dominczyk) who sees no conflict between religion, sexuality, a sense of humor, and a deep well of self-worth. But while their relationship has its powerful highs and lows (plus a leaden fantasy sequence, one of a couple too scattered and fragmentary to feel meaningful), it’s only one thread in a film that’s often so subtle and so careful not to ram its message home that it doesn’t bring across any message at all.