Higher Ground—which releases today in New York and Los Angeles–is a great companion piece to the searing must-see Korean drama, Secret Sunshine, which released this week on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Both films center on a woman’s journey of faith–evangelical Christian faith–through ups, downs, doubts, renewal and tragedy. Both films are made by outsiders to evangelical Christianity but with a sympathetic eye toward truly understanding the complexity of the life of faith. Subsequently, both are brutally honest, messy, sometimes difficult portrayals that get one thing very right about the journey of religious faith: It’s not always easy.
Directed by and starring Vera Farmiga (Oscar nominated for Up in the Air), Higher Ground is a comprehensive narrative of one woman’s struggle with faith, from her girlhood to parenthood and beyond. Farmiga’s character grows up amongst hippies in the 70s and becomes part of a small charismatic band of evangelicals (Jesus People-esque) who do life together as a Christian community, struggling to grow in faith together while also dealing with all the attendant issues (pride, temptation, gender issues, inequality of “gifts,” legalism, etc) that come along with any church family.
Though perhaps too sprawling and ambitious in its multi-decades span, Higher Ground nevertheless manages to be truly perceptive about Christian faith in places, even more so than the average Christian-made film these days.
Perhaps the film’s most resonant insight is its reflection on the centrality of relationships to the life of faith. Farmiga’s attention to the nuances of her character’s relationship to her parents, her husband, her children, her best friend, her pastor and so on all feed in to her complex relationship with God. The film recognizes that our human relationships–and their accompanying experiences of trust, love, affection & abuse–color our relationship with God. How can they not?
Of course the tragic parts of Ground are those that showcase the damage that can be done in one’s trust in God when one’s trust in other humans is betrayed. But the film also displays hope in its recognition that even when we are frustrated with God and want to end our relationship with him, he may not be through with us. He’s the pursuer. Even in the midst of the follies and betrayals of a community of his followers, God still pursues us. Even in the midst of our doubts.
What’s wonderful about films like Higher Ground and Secret Sunshine is that they don’t shy away from the difficulties of trusting in God. They don’t pretend its easy; nor do they pretend that faith exists in some sort of rigid space where we’re either 100% rock-solid in our certainty or we’re hopelessly adrift and stubbornly skeptical. Faith is a grey area, because humans are imperfect and messy. It’s only by the grace of God that any of us have the gift of faith. And that’s the most reassuring fact of all.