If you’re Meryl Streep, you get asked to play Margaret Thatcher. If you’re one of the tens of thousands of other actresses in Hollywood, you most often get asked to play a wife, a mom, a girlfriend, a best friend, a sister, a conquest, or just Dubiously Topless Woman No. 1, and often there’s little more shading or nuance in any role from one end of that list to the other. Which is not to say that great roles for women don’t exist, but there are fewer of them compared to the roles available for men. Thus a small but growing number of actresses are working to create more interesting roles for themselves, though for every breakout hit (e.g. the Kristen Wiig co-written/starring Bridesmaids) there are a dozen that miss most multiplex screens entirely. In the case of actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground (Sony DVD/Blu-ray and streaming), you’re really missing something.
Farmiga occasionally gets Next Streep kudos appended to her name, though many of the films that she’s best known for (say, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed) don’t give her much opportunity to show why. Higher Ground does. Based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the script, the film tells the story of Corinne, who gets born again at a young age (played by Taissa Farmiga, the director’s sister), mostly as a way to join in. Smart and bookish, she nonetheless falls for the first boy who pays her much attention, guitar-playing Ethan (Boyd Holbrook). Before long she’s pregnant, they’re married, and an average young American family is off to a typical start.
Evangelical Christianity becomes an important part of the couple’s life together; Vera Farmiga takes over Corinne at the character’s baptism and full membership into a tres ’70s groovy evangelical sect where the men wear beards and long hair and strum acoustic guitars and the women are expected to behave modestly subserviently. With unwitting aid and abetment from life-loving BFF Anika (a terrific Dagmara Dominczyk), Corinne becomes more and more dissatisfied with accepting her lot, so to speak, whether it’s her inert relationship with God, her secondary role in her church, or her fading attraction for Ethan (Joshua Leonard—yes, from The Blair Witch Project). Complications ensue.
It is exactly the kind of unshowy personal story that goes on all the time right down the street, and exactly the kind of story that rarely makes it to big screen, much less put forth with this much sensitivity and intelligence. As a director, Farmiga mostly hits the marks and stays out of the way, which allows Farmiga the actress and the rest of the cast to stand out. John Hawkes makes a welcome appearance as Corinne’s father, but the call sheet is packed with lesser-known talents who render exquisite performances, from Nina Arianda (who plays Corinne’s mess of a sister) to Norbert Leo Butz (perfect as down-to-earth patriarch Bill). Farmiga takes center stage, though, and more than earns the spot. Her Corinne is complicated—wanting to live by the precepts of faith but envious of Anika’s uncomplicated faith and her marital ease, not unduly prideful but not able to subsume herself as demanded. The camera sometimes catches her in moments of thought, which reminds you how little you see that in movies. There is plenty of fodder for “women’s picture” melodrama here, but Farmiga sidesteps it, offering no easy answers or outs. In the end, Corinne has it her way, for better or worse, as does Farmiga, almost entirely for the better.
It would be somewhat unfair to call Lucky McKee’s The Woman (The Collective DVD and Blu-ray) a more typical treatment of a woman’s story on film, but only somewhat. From the outset, McKee clearly favors the point of view of the title character (Pollyanna MacIntosh), a barely verbal feral female who has been subsisting hunter/gatherer style in a wooded region, than of Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), the small-town attorney, upright family man, and outdoor enthusiast who encounters her. And despite Chris’ blithe bonhomie (he brings to mind a poor man’s Will Ferrell), something’s clearly not right when he drags the woman back to the family spread and shackles her in the root cellar. He tells his family (headed by Angela Bettis, star of McKee’s cult fave May) that he wants to “help” her. But McKee has already tipped Chris’ hand—and his own—by playing obnoxiously lascivious rock ’n’ roll bump ’n’ grind over Chris’ first peek at the woman bathing in a creek. Any moral or aesthetic high ground is quickly forsaken for prurient kicks.
Boys will be boys, right? Suffice to say, by the time The Woman has worked its way toward its inevitable conclusion, the comeuppance that’s waiting almost from the first frames feels hollow and tawdry. Calling out asshole patriarchal behavior on screen with a good deal of asshole patriarchal behavior behind the camera is not as effective a tactic as you might think. Even hardcore gorehounds might have a hard time actually enjoying this one, though ultimately it’s for them alone.