Higher Ground

Tonight I watched the film Higher Ground, which is based on the exit memoir of a . . . let’s call her an ex-“fundamentalist” for convenience’s sake, though that’s not a very informative term. Her religious community, as depicted in the film, evokes the Jesus movement: a vaguely hippie ethos, with lots of legumes and carob brownies, beards on all the men, and explicit tape recorded lectures on how to have Christ-like sex, in tandem with women submitting to male headship and folks commanding Satan to get out of their cars (but no speaking in tongues).

I was disappointed in the film. I’ve liked Vera Farmiga and Joshua Leonard in other films (Up in the Air, Humpday), and I don’t have complaints about their acting in this one. But overall, the film had what I’m thinking of as a “Lifetime/Oprah” feel  to it. Secondary characters tended to be two-dimensional, even caricatured: the straight-laced, judgmental fundamentalist matron; the fucked-up coke junkie dressed like a streetwalker; the self-righteous, hell-preaching Christian counselor. Partly I blame the acting; partly I blame the writing; and partly I have to blame the director. (I’m sorry, Vera.)

The problem, I suspect, is that the author of the exit memoir, who also co-wrote the screenplay, thinks of her story as particularly significant and the personal insights she’s arrived at as profound–when they’re not. They’re standard issue for an exit memoir or a fundamentalist-turned-liberal conversion narrative. And then to exacerbate the problem, the other people involved in making this film (producers, director, actors) likewise think of this as a particularly significant story, and probably perceive themselves as doing something noble and extraordinary, i.e., because they’re taking faith seriously and are being fair to the fundamentalists they portray. As a result, they think they’re doing something grander than they are. They’re coasting on cliches without knowing that’s what they’re doing.

This might have been a better movie if the filmmakers had accepted that the story they’re telling isn’t special. (Making this shift would probably require getting the memoirist away from the project.) With that realization in place, they would then have had to work harder to make the film special: to flesh characters out richly and three-dimensionally, to fight against the pull of the conventional in writing and performance, to insist on nuance, to really challenge the audience–not the fake challenge of asking liberals to watch a film about fundamentalists without laughing derisively. That’s not a challenge; people should be prepared to do that already.

The film has moments where it rises toward what I imagine it could have been: a scene with dogs outside a church which is plainly meant to have special meaning but whose symbolism isn’t obvious; a tangential moment when the protagonist’s mother, who has also become some kind of conservative Christian (a not necessarily predictable development that happens off screen), exchanges heavy looks with her ex-husband. The latter was part of my favorite scene, actually–my favorite because it comes closest to raising a real challenge to film-goers for whom fundamentalists are an Other. It’s a birthday party, and the extended family are gathered. Some are conservative Christian (of different varieties, it appears), some not. But somehow they’ve worked out an accommodation that lets them coexist without the occasion lapsing into a cliched confrontation like the one we were fed earlier in the film, when the children ask how Aunt Wendy can be so nice when she’s unsaved. How that accommodation was reached isn’t something we’re shown, though that would be a worthwhile story to tell in itself.

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