Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fundie Funk: Higher Ground

Corinne Walker married into an exotic tribe: red state Evangelical Christians. She tries to make the best of it, but finds everything is always about God and never about her in Vera Farmiga’s star vehicle and directorial debut, Higher Ground (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

CW Walker was an angry drunk whose wife Kathleen enjoyed flirting with the fundamentalist Pastor Bud. This environment makes daughter Corinne something of a rebel, who tries to check out Lord of the Flies from the library. Eventually, she goes all in marrying garage rocker Ethan Miller. However, when an accident on the tour boss sends him back into the Christian fold, she is back where she started from. At least she has a close confidante in family friend Annika, who makes Evangelical Christianity sexy. Unfortunately, her husband is almost willfully out of touch with her needs. As a result, she feels increasingly stifled at home and at church.

Higher Ground has been hailed by Blue State critics as an even-handed depiction of Evangelical Christianity. In practical terms, this only means they are not portrayed as Doomsday child molesters holed-up in a booby-trapped compound. Aside from Annika and the disillusioned protagonist, Evangelicals are uniformly portrayed as insensitive, uneducated, judgmental, insular bumpkins. When they speak of their faith (which they often do), it is clearly with the intent of creeping out the audience with all their weird God talk.

Though based on an alleged been-there-and-lived-to-tell memoir, the guts of Ground ring glaringly false. Though not of their religious tradition, I’ve campaigned with many during my political years. In most cases, outsiders will find Evangelical Christians are not psychologically tone-deaf as Ground suggests, but eerily attuned to the emotions of those around them. Frankly, the film more resembles an outsider’s caricature than an insider’s confessional. It also hardly helps that Farmiga and Joshua Leonard never look like a remotely believable couple.

Conversely, Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa is a perfect fit for the teen-aged Corinne Walker. Beyond her obvious likeness, she proves to have a smart, engaging screen presence, more so even than the senior Farmiga, in this case. Yet, probably the film’s most memorable turn comes from Dagmara Dominczyk, the daughter of Polish Solidarity activist Mirek Dominczyk, who was forced to accept asylum in America in 1983. She brings warmth and humanity to the devout but earthy Annika, so naturally her character has to be eliminated in rather dramatic fashion.

With the exception of Hump Day’s Leonard, who looks like a reject from a Judd Apatow comedy, Ground boasts an intriguing ensemble cast, featuring several Broadway stars, including Donna Murphy as Kathleen Walker, with fellow Tony winners Bill Irwin and Norbert Leo Butz both playing folksy pastors. By and large, the problem is not one of personnel but with the material they grapple with. Though it is probably destined to air repeatedly on the Oprah network, Ground is a disappointing film, far more prejudicial than the Evangelical community it disdains. Highly skippable, it opens this Friday (8/26) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.