Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground explores one woman’s experience of faith, doubt, community, alienation, and transformation in the non-denominational evangelical movement that remade American Protestantism in the 1970s. This film tells a moving individual story of conversion and spiritual disaffection while providing a remarkably insightful, grassroots-level view of evangelical revivalism in the second half of the twentieth century. The broad cultural currents that led Newsweek magazine to call 1976 ‘the Year of the Evangelical’ are most often associated with the rise of the religious right and so-called “political Christianity,” but this film provides an intimate portrait of the everyday lives of believers whose lives were changed by the counterculture-influenced “Jesus Movement.”
Perhaps the greatest triumph of Farmiga’s direction and nuanced performance is her ability to convey the real pleasures of insider status for women like protagonist Corrine (Vera Farmiga). In her “Jesus People” house church there is music, laughter, passion, and friendship. Farmiga is especially capable when portraying the ecstasies of feeling lost and then found, the overwhelming gratitude of miraculously answered prayer, and the desperate, whole-hearted way that Corrine grasps at the hope of spiritual assurance and a life built on “solid ground.”
While reproductive heterosexuality seems to structure Corrine’s journey in the Church – Corrine converts and finds her church with her husband after their infant is miraculously saved from drowning – her intimate relationships with women, especially her friend Annika, provide the through line for her spiritual and emotional journey from spiritual seeker to zealous convert to uncertain apostate. While this narrative ostensibly addresses the relationship between Corrine and God, or Corrine and the church, Higher Ground ends up being the story of unwieldy desires and the blooming of rich affective worlds between women. From the sharp sting of a rebuke when Corrine is chastised by an older woman for wearing a too-revealing maternity dress to the luxurious physicality and excitement of her relationship with Annika, Farmiga brilliantly captures the particular intimacies between women afforded by the homosocially-oriented environments that characterize this vein of Protestantism, without pathologizing, romanticizing, or flattening their complexities.
Elizabeth Dolfi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Her research focuses on feminist and queer studies of American Religious history with an emphasis on evangelical heterosexuality in media and popular culture.