I don’t agree with most of the attacks on Hollywood by Christian fundamentalists, but there’s one criticism — and it’s a major one — that they’re absolutely right about: When it comes to portraying people of faith, Hollywood is worse than disrespectful — it’s shamefully disinterested. When a comedy like Saved, much as I’m a fan of it, passes for a vital vision of American Christian experience, you know that there’s something missing in our movie culture. (Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is a great film, but it’s about as far from the lives of everyday Christians as you can get.)
Stepping up to the plate of righteousness — at liberal secular Sundance, no less — is the vibrant actress Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Down to the Bone), who has now become a filmmaker. She directed and stars in Higher Ground, a rich, sprawling, uplifting, disquieting, at once demystifying and mysterious drama about the life and love and heartbreak and faith of one woman in America who’s an evangelical Christian. I almost wrote “who happens to be an evangelical Christian,” but that would be misleading — and false. Higher Ground insists on the deep normality of true believers, but it also portrays their belief as a choice that floods the most mundane moments of daily existence. The upbeat homiletic fervor of church spreads over to domestic chores, to picnics and parties, to innocent flirtation and not-so-innocent flirtation.
Farmiga plays Corrine, who opens her heart to Jesus as a young girl yet doesn’t, at the time, really know what that means. In high school in the ’70s, she dates a Peter Frampton-haired, aviator-framed student rock & roller (his band is called the Renegades), but it isn’t until they get married and have a baby that the spirit seizes her in a moment of terror: His band’s bus crashes, and when their child, feared dead, is saved, it’s but a short step for Corrine to get saved herself, baptized into a tightly knit community of Christians.
We get to know the members of that community, and it’s like a sect of the Amish transplanted to the consumerist suburbs. They have rules and phrases and manners, a way of thinking, for every occasion. For a while, the movie plays off the comic dislocation of middle-class born-again disciples, and I worried that Farmiga, as a filmmaker, had overly exoticized her subject. Corrine’s best friend, Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk), is a free spirit who speaks in tongues and gives brazen bedroom advice (she favors drawing portraits of her husband’s penis). At moments, it’s all very Christian-sitcom nudge-nudge, but only at moments. Farmiga doesn’t let anyone on screen lapse into caricature. The preacher who’s also a territorial office politician, the burly hippie who leads a men’s group by playing Jesus-approved erotic-advice cassettes (yes, reconciling divinity and desire is a major theme here), and Corrine’s husband, Ethan (Joshua Leonard), who matures into a laid-back good man who’s so piously controlled, and so deep-down angry about it, that he can’t give Corrine what she needs: These are characters who keep us watching, keep us parsing their emotional psychology.
The movie turns on a paradox. The men and women in Higher Ground have chosen a life in which God is comfort, a security blanket they carry around with them. Yet as the movie goes on, all the discomfort and pain of life leaks in anyway. In one shuddery turn of events, Farmiga reaches for something audacious: A woman with an “inoperable” brain tumor has it operated on. She lives, but loses her faculties. The humane choice? The godly choice? In Higher Ground, the tumult and tragedy of life aren’t overwhelmed by any frosty-faced Joel Osteen sparkle. Even the deepest belief won’t save you from the blues.
Farmiga, working from a script by Carolyn S. Briggs and Tim Metcalfe, has given herself the kind of role that actresses dream of. She uses her Lady Madonna face to flood Corrine with a searching beatific passion, even as she finds at times that she’s living in a Stepford straitjacket; she has quirks and stirrings that the Christian community can’t contain. She plays Corrine as a striver who cleaves to Christianity yet, in the very purity of that feeling, chafes at its traditionalism. She signed on for faith, for giving herself over to God, yet supplication doesn’t sit will with her. Even when she’s down and out, though, she never wants out. Will evangelicals embrace Higher Ground? Maybe not. Some will say that it’s too cartoonishly anthropological. On some level, they may be right. Yet Higher Ground breaks crucial, sacred ground in American moviemaking. It portrays the evangelical mindset with such heightened curiosity and feeling that although on some level it’s depicting them as “the other,” by the end they’re all of us too.
* * * *
A delinquent-teen movie that surfs along on the dead-end whims and casual cruelties of its central character runs a risk: It can end up looking as random and undisciplined as she is. That’s what makes Little Birds a touching and distinctive achievement. It’s not just another myth of delinquency-as-rebellion. It gets at the nitty-gritty of adolescent aimlessness and despair, and the way that certain kids act that out.
The kid, in this case, is Lily, who lives in a California trailer park along the dirty white shores of the Salton Sea. She’s played by Juno Temple (above, right), who let me say right now deserves her status as festival darling. The daughter of British director Julien Temple (remember him? He was hot in the ’80s; more recently, he made the great Sex Pistols chronicle The Filth and the Fury), Temple is quite petite, with a cascade of frizzy-wavy hair and a face that always looks like it’s about to burst into tears. Even when she smiles, there’s a deliquescent sadness to her, and that’s the poetry of her loveliness.
She really is a little bird, but here’s the thing: As Lily, she’s feisty as hell, like Lisbeth Salander as a tough beach chick in cutoffs. It’s the anger just beneath that angelic crying-face that gives Temple the chance to be a star. Lily, restless and bored, can’t stand her life, and so, dragging along her only friend, the more cautious and rational Alison (Kay Panabaker), she heads to Los Angeles to hook up with the skateboard-punk drifter she met, briefly, in her flat, depressing excuse for a neighborhood. The film’s young writer-director, Elgin James, who developed Little Birds at the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs, shows off the best possibilities of that training: an intuition about how to let scenes unfold so that they keep turning unexpected corners. The movie has a real flow — and, in the scenes with the street kids Lily finds herself drawn to (even when they turn violent), a feel for the blitzed junior nihilism that marked such end-of-the-’70s teen-delinquent flicks as Over the Edge and Foxes.
In a movie like this one, a self-destructive live wire like Lily must hit bottom before she can feel better. There’s a moralistic structure there, but it leaves Lily in a place that’s scarcely more reassuring than the one she first abandoned. That’s what makes Little Birds not just a lesson but, in its rambling way, an organic journey.