Ebertfest 2012: ‘Higher Ground’ has anti-feminist hippies

Being religious is the norm for some countries, but in America today, it isn’t easy being religious—even if one is Protestant. Just the topic of religious faith might turn people away from the 2011 movie,“Higher Ground.” Based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ book, “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost,” “Higher Ground” take our protagonist from a hopeful child, to a pregnant teen marrying her musician boyfriend to a woman who becomes immersed in a very radical Christian community.

Briggs and Tim Metcalfe wrote the screenplay that neither indicts nor romanticizes Briggs’ journey into a kind of hyper-faithfulness to God.

For Briggs, it was a community called Fountain of Joy but in the movie the New Testament church.  The movie makes clear that this was very much a product of the 1970s, a hippie church that ignored feminism and found comfort in benevolent paternalism.  From the beginning we see that the adult Corinne (Vera Farmiga who also directs) is plagued by the practical. At her baptism in a river, while one man is so pleased he asks to be dunked twice, Corinne is worried about the water in her ears and what icky squirmy thing she might be stepping on.

Her husband,  Ethan Miller (Joshua Leonard), doesn’t make it to college having set his heart on being a rock star, but that leads him to low-paying jobs. The church also encourages men to have long beards, a sure turn-off to corporate America, even during the seventies. The small community has separate meetings for the husbands where they learn to satisfy their women and where the wives learn to be obedient.  There is a comfort in following and a serenity in not questioning, but that’s kind of existence is not for all people, as Corinne finds out.

One might argue that Corinne and Ethan married too young, but at the time what other choice did women have pre-women’s rights movement, particularly if one was not deemed college material. For some women of a different era, college was only a means of meeting a better set of marriageable men.

I would argue that Corinne’s journey is similar to what many people of faith face while trying to navigate life in a secular world and as a woman, the breaking point is the requirement of many faiths that women subjugate their will to men, first their fathers, then their brothers, then their husbands and then their church leaders.

Not all faiths require such biased obedience, but if women are equal under secular law, they are apt to question unequal treatment before God.  Obedience should not disregard one’s intelligence and women as the first teachers of the young should not defer decisions to men and face that awkward age where a once deferring child becomes the man who must also be obeyed.

The small church that Briggs writes about is a splinter of a splinter that attempts to almost hold back time by holding back women. I would also question the kind of character and personality that draws one to marginal groups should also be factored into one evaluation of faith portrayed in “Higher Ground.”  In contrast, Corinne avoided the darker side of the counterculture movement that her older sister, Wendy (Nina Arianda) is shown in the movie to have embraced.

In real life, according to an article in Salon, the Fountain of Joy church had about 40 families led by a group of male elders. The group frowned on certain medications deemed unnecessary. The elders prevented the couple Briggs and her then-husband (they have since divorced) from taking a job which would have required the family to move to a different state as if Satan and disaster could only be avoided in Iowa.

Consider all the achievements of feminism in the 1970s that Briggs ignored—the nationwide “Women’s Strike for Equality, the Congress to Unite Women in NYC, the protests and activism surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment and the start of women’s studies departments at San Diego State University and Cornell.  Radical feminism is one extreme, but the lifestyle of the Fountain of Joy pushed women back farther than the “Leave It to Beaver” June Cleaver (1957-1963) of the 1950s. By their standards, June Cleaver was more than a bit uppity and her clothing would be considered immodest. The Fountain of Joy church was more conservative than the 1950s so-called ideal woman so what led Briggs to embrace that lifestyle?

In the movie, “Higher Ground,” Briggs gives a balanced view of the good, the bad and the not so bad aspects of life in a small close-knit church group. Some aspects of her life shown in the movie remind one of the lost social ties of farming families of the past. First time director Vera Farmiga brings intelligent and humorous life to this harmless hippie world and the main character who grows to want more.

–My report from the Ebertfest in April 2012. 

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