Saturday, September 3, 2011

Vera Farmiga: Kind of Like a Prayer (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground, Sony Pictures Classics, 2011.

Questions of faith and faithlessness are usually raised in motion pictures in two distinct ways; with a smirk or a frown. When done with a grin the film is usually funded by the church. Actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut Higher Ground falls somewhere uncomfortably in between.

This new film is difficult to classify, which can be a good thing. To pidgeonhole it, is it a melodrama? A satire? Propaganda? Indie-hip? It is all of these and none of these things, and the resultant mish-mash is hard on the heart and mind to watch. You can ascertain what the gifted Farmiga is attempting to do here, it just does not work. To start out, the screenplay written by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, based upon Briggs' memoirs, is told in too broad of strokes. A personal story shies away from the intimate and ends up falling into cliche and dramatic compromise.

From the ashes of a disastrous blueprint rises a misfired first film, albeit a ballsy one in many respects. Farmiga lends the same unshakable discipline and vigor of her brilliant acting jobs to the promising incomprehensibility of her directorial debut. The episodic 1960s to 1990s structure is interesting, as are certain scenes which are chillingly right. The rift between intention and creation running through the picture is beyond reconciliation.

So we are left with a fabulous cast, lead by the wrenching but subtle turn of Farmiga, who hits every note of her character with perfection, and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) who matches her with a flawless performance as her husband. John Hawkes, Dagmara Dominczyk, Nina Arianda, Bill Irwin and others give richly nuanced performances, amid the stylistic chaos. The look is subdued and suitably "indie", as the picture swings from solemn strength to cringe worthy hysteria and offensive manipulation.

Beside this all is the shining light that is Vera Farmiga. Her bravery and strength as one of this country's greatest actresses allows us to look beyond her first film into the future. Her gift as an actor's director is unmistakable. Here's hoping that next time is soon and she finds the right vessel for her expression.

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