The end of the summer isn’t usually the best time for movies. Flicks deemed unlikely to become blockbusters get dumped there, and horror films and children’s movies fill out the rest. None of them are very good: the more exciting ones are often released earlier before action-fatigue sets in, and better movies hold off until later in the year to increase their chances of getting Oscars.
There is one high-quality indie that slipped in there, though, and one of genuine interest to us: Higher Ground. The film, about a woman’s evolving relationship to her devout religious group, was directed by Ulster County resident Vera Farmiga (making her debut behind the lens) and shot in various Hudson Valley locations, including Kingston.
Better yet, it’s actually good.
“Farmiga steers Higher Ground ably, from its rewarding performances (especially from Hawkes, Murphy, Leonard and Dagmara Dominczyk as Corinne’s free-spirited friend Annika) to its unexpected bursts of comedy and eventual well-earned moments of bittersweet grace. At a time when the country seems willfully divided into camps of believers and nonbelievers, Higher Ground treads an in-between area with admirable compassion and insight.” — Robert Abele, the Los Angeles Times
“Ask yourself during the film where you think it takes place — which American state? I looked up the locations on IMDb and was surprised. Its location doesn’t fit regional stereotypes.” — Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times
“Shot on hazy, summery digital video by cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone), Higher Ground glides and takes time to explore. In the best way it feels very ’70s: It’s about a relatable lost soul finding herself.” — Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune
“Higher Ground, a natural interweaving of period detail from the 1960s through the ’80s as well as a subtle critique written by a believer (memoirist Carolyn S. Briggs), must count as proof of miracles.” — Joshua Rothkopf, who gave it 5/5 stars in Time Out New York
“I don’t mean to make it sound as if the movie, which was written by Ms. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, were preaching or making an argument. Nor does it aim for a soft middle ground of nervous tolerance. Instead, it presents the subjective facts of Corinne’s life as precisely and clearly as it can, refusing to condescend or sentimentalize anyone, and inviting you to sift through the nuances and find the answers for yourself.” — A.O. Scott, the New York Times
Of course, you can’t win them all:
“The dramatic crux of Higher Ground never makes much of an impact, largely because her commitment.. seems so tenuous and hazily sketched out, a fault equally attributable to the writing and Farmiga’s unsure footing both behind and in front of the camera. Even with her beatific face (the actress looks like one of Parmigianino’s Madonnas), Farmiga is never wholly believable as a woman shaken by a crisis of belief.” — Melissa Anderson, the Village Voice
“The film’s shuddering, off-kilter swerves into farce (including ’70s New Hollywood-vintage flashes of fantasy, a solitary same-sex reverie included) bespeak a lack of confidence in the value of Corinne’s spiritual thirst, or any redeeming succor offered in her church to balance the sexist supremacy.” — Bill Weber, Slant
Unfortunately, Higher Ground is in real danger of being overlooked and overshadowed. It’s playing at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, but other than that, I’m pretty sure you have to go to New York City. And right on its heels is Martha Marcy May Marlene, another indie movie co-starring John Hawkes about a woman trying to escape her religion. This one stars an Olsen sister (Elizabeth, younger sibling to Mary-Kate and Ashley), got great reviews at Sundance, and will probably get a wider release. I hope an audience will be able to find both films.