Oct. 19, 2011 10:31

Formidable Farmiga finds Higher Ground and a humorous Hedgehog

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Vera Farmiga makes a strong impression, both as star and director of Higher Ground ( ), an adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs’ best-selling memoir This Dark World. Not surprisingly, Farmiga allows her fellow actors considerable opportunity to shine, but it certainly pays off here, as the performances alone make the film worthwhile.

The story follows the life of Corinne, a young girl who experiences first romance, pregnancy, marriage (in that order), followed by a near-tragedy that compels her to embrace faith. Farmiga plays Corinne as an adult, and her real-life sister Taissa provides a seamless transition as the young Corinne.

It is as wife and mother that Corinne begins to question things in her life that she once took for granted. She doesn’t so much suffer a crisis of faith in a higher power as a crisis of faith in herself. The answers she seeks must come from within, which causes a rift in her closeknit, faith-based community and, indeed, in her relationship with husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard, also excellent).

The film is never insincere when dealing with Christianity, although it makes clear that it can be subject to individual interpretation and, indeed, prone to manipulation by interpretation. The church scenes possess an energetic spirit (no pun intended) in their depiction.

Clearly, Higher Ground is not slam-bang, high-concept fare, but a thoughtful, meditative and grown-up portrait of a life in transition. The story moves at its own pace, and it’s both character-driven and actor-friendly. In addition to Leonard and the Farmiga sisters, others of note in the cast include Donna Murphy and John Hawkes as Corinne’s parents, Nina Arianda as her (wayward?) younger sister, Bill Irwin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz and Boyd Holbrook as the young Ethan, providing as smooth a transition to Leonard as Taissa and Vera Farmiga.

It’s to the credit of director Farmiga and screenwriters Briggs and Tim Metcalfe that the story doesn’t manufacture any simple or easy solutions. To have done so would have diminished the emotions that Corinne is grappling with. Corinne’s search for meaning and fulfillment is an ongoing and difficult one. Heady stuff at times, but never heavy-handed.

First things first: The Hedgehog ( ) has nothing to do with porn star Ron Jeremy, but instead is rather a droll and observant adaptation of Muriel Barbery’s novel L’elegance du Herisson by screenwriter/director Mona Abache. No porn, just wit.

The story focuses on Paloma (the remarkable Garance Le Guillermic), a bored and bespectacled 11-year-old girl who decides to kill herself on her 12 th birthday. This is obviously black-comedy territory, and Le Guillermic’s self-assured performance anchors it.

When she’s not antagonizing her clueless family by filming their every movement with her ever-present video camera, Paloma ruminates on life, love and loss with far more maturity than her years. Almost inadvertently, she becomes fixated on Mrs. Michel (Josiane Balasko), the dour widow who works as a janitor in her building, and perhaps sees a kindred spirit.

Things look up for Mrs. Michel — and, indeed, for Paloma — when she befriends another of the building’s tenants, the kindhearted Japanese widower Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa). In one exchange, she asks if Mr. Ozu is related to the famous director Yasujiro Ozu. He’s not, actually, but the mere inquiry is a knowing nod to film buffs. The themes that Abache examines in The Hedgehog are not that far afield from the observations of life made by Yasujiro Ozu in his films.

Le Guillermic, Igawa and the marvelously poker-faced Balasko comprise a delightful trio here, each one slowly allowing their emotions to come forth, in an attempt to merely connect — on some level — with another human being.

The title, incidentally, refers to Paloma’s initial impression of Mrs. Michel. Until she gets to know her better, that is. (In French with English subtitles)

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