Vera Farmiga directs and stars in "Higher Ground." (Molly Hawkey / Sony Pictures…)
The same intelligence, wit and mature spirit that actress Vera Farmiga ("Up in the Air") brings to her performances is richly apparent in her directorial debut as well, the inquisitive spiritual drama "Higher Ground."
Based on Carolyn Briggs' memoir "This Dark World," and adapted by Farmiga with Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, the film depicts the journey of Midwesterner Corinne from godly wonderment to roiling dissatisfaction. As a teenager, literary-minded, curious Corinne (played in these scenes by Farmiga's youngest sister, Taissa) bristles at the disintegrating union of her mother (Donna Murphy) and father (John Hawkes).
When her own blissful romance with a long-haired rock guitarist named Ethan (Boyd Holbrook) quickly settles into a workaday marriage, young parenthood and near-tragedy, the pair double down on their bond by turning to the Bible as a way to make sense of their changing lives.
Farmiga and Joshua Leonard pick up the roles of Corinne and Ethan as adults, when they've settled into a tightly knit, rural evangelical Christian community marked by hippie-ish conventions (folk-tinged song circles, sexual happiness chatter) and ultra-conservative attitudes about gender roles. So while Ethan can find fulfillment as a musician for Jesus, Corinne's attempt at self-expression in church is reprimanded as "preaching to the men."
As doubt creeps into Corinne's mind with each twist of life, Farmiga's beatific features tighten ever so slightly, her character discovering the importance of self-determined strength in a world where dogma and uncertainty don't easily mix.
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.