Sunday, April 21, 2024

“Up in the Air” Star Vera Farmiga Has Directing Triumph at Sundance


The very talented actress Vera Farmiga, nominated for an Oscar for “Up in the Air,” is waiting right now to see who will buy her first directed feature at Sundance.

“Higher Ground,” which premiered over the weekend, is an exceptionally lovely piece of work. It’s not a film I thought I wanted to see, and almost left in the first few minutes. It’s an adaptation of the 2002 memoir of a college professor– Carolyn Briggs-– who grew up in a small, rural Christian sect. (I think in the movie the location has been transposed from possibly Iowa to upstate New York.) Not only does Farmiga direct the film, she also stars as Corinne aka Carolyn, a woman who questions her faith as an adult. The memoir, still in print, is called “This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Lost and Found.”

The reason I stayed in my seat: Farmiga never loses control of the film. She creates this community and makes it a full, rich, completely engrossing experience. She’s also populated it with an extraordinary cast: John Hawkes, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bill Irwin, and the director’s sister, Taissa Farmiga.

Taissa Farmiga is Vera’s sister, younger by 21 years–same parents. She plays the young Corinne memorably for the first quarter of the film. Most people think she’s Vera’s daughter in real life, but she isn’t. If she wants an acting career, she’ll have one.

If you remember Robert Benton‘s wonderful film, “Places in the Heart,” and Robert Duvall‘s “The Apostle,” then you’ll know what territory we’re in. Farmiga and her screenwriters Briggs and Tim Metcalfe–have recreated this insular world that Farmiga said at the Q&A following the first screening could have been about any religion–these people could just as well have been Quakers, Amish, or Hasidic. The movie is bigger than that, and you see it as it progresses–it’s about faith in the larger sense, and what Corinne is looking for when a crisis comes.  It’s about restoring and maintaining belief, not rejecting it.

Anyway, whichever company buys “Higher Ground” gets a formidable film with an Oscar winning performance by Farmiga and a new, wonderful director in her, too.

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Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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