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Originally published September 8, 2011 at 3:06 PM | Page modified September 9, 2011 at 3:07 PM

Movie review

Vera Farmiga invests 'Higher Ground' with gentle gravity

A movie review of "Higher Ground," in which director Vera Farmiga plays a woman who journeys from a childhood conversion to a loss of faith.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Higher Ground,' with Vera Farmiga, Norbert Leo Butz, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes, Bill Irwin, Taissa Farmiga. Directed by Vera Farmiga, from a screenplay by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based on the memoir "This Dark World" by Briggs. 109 minutes. Rated R for some language and sexual content. Guild 45th.

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A quietly moving film shot in the soft colors of a faded photograph album, Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" tells of a woman's spiritual journey. Based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (who wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe), it's the story of Corinne, who over some 20 years travels from a childhood conversion to Christianity to years as an adult spent in an evangelical community and a final, poignant loss of faith. Farmiga, in her directing debut, plays Corinne as an adult, and her teenage sister Taissa Farmiga plays the character as a teen; you can see a tantalizing shadow of her older sister in Taissa's face.

There's a gentleness to "Higher Ground" that's very appealing; you sense a real affection for all the characters, particularly the women, and a genuine curiosity about religion as a guiding principle in one's life. (That's rare enough on screen these days; on television, one of the most compelling things about the often-uneven series "Big Love" was its willingness to engage in serious talk of its characters' faith.) You wait for something enormous to happen in "Higher Ground," and it never does; this movie isn't about high drama, but about listening to one's soul.

Director Farmiga, who revealed in "Up in the Air" that she can banter with the best of the screwball comediennes, brings an appealing, subtle kookiness to Corinne that keeps the film from ever seeming too earnest. Like Meryl Streep, Farmiga frequently conveys that she's amused with herself, that her character knows not to take herself too seriously. (In one scene, you wonder if Corinne's drunk; she's really just rapturous, in a slightly giddy way.) But when she needs to, as she reverently sings "How Great Thou Art" or leaves a church with one last look that seems to convey a lifetime, she's utterly in the moment and we get happily lost, watching her find herself.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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