American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Vera Farmiga's "Higher Ground" is the life story of a woman who grows into, and out of, Christianity. It values her at every stage of that process. It never says she is making the right or wrong decision, only that what she does seems necessary at the time she does it. In a world where believers and agnostics are polarized and hold simplified ideas about each other, it takes a step back and sees faith as a series of choices that should be freely made.
The woman's name is Corinne. We see her as a child, a teenager around 20 and an adult around 40. As a child, she invites Jesus into her life in a conventional mainstream Protestant sort of way. Later, she is born again, with full immersion and all the rest of it, after she and her husband credit God for saving them and their child from tragedy. Later still, she finds her evangelical congregation enforcing uncomfortable conformity upon her.
I would like to say "Higher Ground," which marks Farmiga's directorial debut, never steps wrong in following this process, but it does. Sometimes it slips too easily into satire, but at least it's nuanced satire based on true believers who are basically nice and good people. There are no heavy-handed portraits of holy rollers here, just people whose view of the world is narrow. There are also no outsize sinners, just some gentle singer-songwriters who are too fond of pot and whose lyrics are parades of cliches.
Corinne is played as a girl by McKenzie Turner, as an adult by Vera Farmiga and as a teenager by Farmiga's sister, Taissa. At all of these stages in life, the character's face reflects awareness and intelligence, along with an inbred independence that makes her a little reluctant to go along with the crowd. At the discussions held by her prayer group, we can see her drawing a line between those who are thoughtful and those who are passive conformists. Corinne reads widely. She thinks about the Scriptures. She has opinions. She doesn't respond well when an older woman advises her that when she speaks out, it sounds too much like preaching. God forbid a woman should have an opinion.