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At Sundance, an actress-turned-director surprises

Posted 8:28pm on Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

The cliche of the overly earnest indie actor who really just wants to direct is a commonplace one at this festival. In recent years, the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Adrian Grenier and Joey Lauren Adams all made their directorial debuts here, with mostly tepid results.

So I hope I can be forgiven for not having very high expectations for Higher Ground, a drama directed by and starring Vera Farmiga, who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination last year for Up in the Air.

As it turns out, Higher Ground, which I saw early Monday morning, is the best film I’ve seen at Sundance this year -- and the best film about the subject of religion in the United States since Robert Duvall’s 1997 film The Apostle. Based on a memoir by Carolyn Briggs (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Higher Ground follows a woman (Farmiga) and her musician husband (Joshua Leonard) who, following the near-death of her child, join up with a born-again Christian sect in upstate New York.

If you’re expecting some snide Left Coast broadside against true believers, however, try again. (The snide broadsides came during last night’s Red State.) Instead, Farmiga has offered up a sincere, probing look at what it means to believe, and what happens when doubt starts to overtake your belief.

As a director, Farmiga does fine work, neatly evoking three different time periods (the movie unfolds between the 1960s and the 1980s), and capturing moments of quiet elegance (one scene, involving a group of dogs circling outside a church, is especially lovely).

It’s as an actress, though, where Farmiga truly dazzles. Her character’s journey is a deeply internal one, and the most pivotal scenes here -- such as when Farmiga learns that her best friend has survived a cancer operation, but will be left in a vegetative state -- are uncommonly quiet. Yet Farmiga uses her wide eyes and gorgeously transparent face to allow us to understand every shift in her character’s emotional and moral perspective. It’s a ravishing piece of work that, with any justice, will earn Farmiga a place among next year’s Best Actress nominees.

The only disappointment about Higher Ground: It’s not nearly generating the attention it deserves. I caught the film’s second screening here, which wasn’t even full; and the movie hasn’t been talked up as one of the big titles being pursued by distributors. Maybe folks are being as cynical as I was, never expecting that the actress-who-wanted-to-direct would turn out such a terrific little movie. But don’t be surprised if Higher Ground ends up being the surprise winner when the awards are handed out here on Saturday night.

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