The actress Vera Farmiga, best known as George Clooney's flirty friend with benefits in Up in the Air, has almond eyes and a high forehead, features more often found in 16th-century altarpieces of the Madonna or the Magdalen than on movie screens.
It is a face ideally suited to Higher Ground, her stunning directorial debut, where she plays Corinne, a lost soul who finds faith but aches for a tangible connection to God.
The story is based on This Dark World, a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (who collaborated on the screenplay). Think a contemporary Pilgrim's Progress that spans 30 years from Corinne's acceptance, at 10, of Jesus as her savior to her spiritual struggle, at 40, frustrated in the Slough of Despond.
As Farmiga interprets her character, for many years Corinne's faith is a comforting fit. But as her children grow, her marriage grows stale, and her testimony at prayer service is regarded as a challenge to male authority, evangelical Christianity starts to pinch.
Both behind and before the camera, Farmiga is thoughtful and unsettled. Corinne is played by three actresses: McKenzie Turner as a preteen, Taissa Farmiga (the actress' kid sister) as a teen and young married woman, and the filmmaker herself as a wife, mother, and skeptic.
Besides the piercing, laser-blue eyes, what connects the younger with the more mature iterations of Corinne are her restless energy and curiosity.
Faith is her axis. It gives her a husband, a family, and an extended family. But as she matures from young mother to a homemaker in her middle years, the center does not hold.
As a director, Farmiga likes visual metaphors. Initially, Corinne's faith is shown (literally) as her rock. Her inability to be an instrument of God is linked with her inability to play the accordion. Her inability to experience sexual ecstasy is linked with her inability to experience the religious kind.
At times, these analogies feel forced. But give the rookie filmmaker credit for visual storytelling.
Farmiga, a sympathetic director of other actresses, elicits a tremulous performance from sister Taissa as the young Corinne and an electric one from Dagmara Dominczyk as Annika, Corinne's bosom friend.
Corinne's journey begins with an act of blind faith. The movie ends, but you have a palpable sense that the journey does not.