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Atlantic Film Festival 2011, Day One: ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’


This year’s Atlantic Film Festival started off with a disappointment. All three screenings of last night’s opening gala of comedy troupe Picnicface’s Roller Town were sold out.  Completely sold out. If Haligonians love anything it’s supporting their own. But putting behind me the disappointments of the previous day, I attended the first real day of the festival with excitement.

Higher Ground 

Higher Ground is actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut. Set mostly in a small religious community in present day, the film also jumps back in time to tell the story of Farmiga’s character, Corinne. As we follow Corinne’s development from precocious child to a young woman with a husband and beautiful family, we see her faith in god and herself change and get tested in different ways.

Based on the plot description, the film sounds like a very quiet mood piece. That’s why the humour in this film is so unexpected. Not only that but it is also completely out of place in the rest of the film. The religious community that Corinne ends up joining with husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard) is at once a bunch of hippies as well as a patriarchal society where women are told they must not make their opinions too public because the men might feel preached at. Instead they should just come up with more ways to serve god and their husbands. The misplaced humour that accompanies almost every scene featuring other members of the community makes it hard to know how exactly we are meant to feel about them. The film asks us to take it and its characters seriously but appears to make fun of all of them constantly. Are we supposed to feel sorry for them or instead for Corinne because she is trapped there? Or are we just supposed to laugh at how silly everyone’s being? I have a feeling it’s not the latter but it was really hard to care about the characters when the film was constantly forcing us to laugh at them.

Farmiga, however, delivers a very strong performance as Corinne who seems to just be pushed around by life and everyone in it until she finally takes a stand toward the end of the film. Much of her character’s inner struggles are conveyed simply by looks and actions rather than words which makes what we are seeing on screen that much more powerful. Behind the camera, it is clear that Farmiga is interested in people. The camera pays a lot of attention to their faces with many close ups and steady shots.

Farmiga’s performance is not the only worth noting. John Hawkes, who plays Corinne’s troubled father, CW, is absolutely outstanding. In fact, so good, it makes me wonder whether a film focusing on CW and Corinne’s mother, Kathleen (Donna Murphy), might have been more interesting than what we get here. Another great performance is given by Nina Arianda as Corinne’s troublemaker sister Wendy.

Though a performance and directorial debut worth noting, it seems that Farmiga’s talents could have been better utilized in a different project. The film isn’t able to figure out whether it wants us to laugh at its characters or care for them. In the end, it was hard not to feel indifferent toward them. 


Sleeping Beauty 

To stick with the trend of directorial debuts, Sleeping Beauty is a film by first-time director Julia Leigh. The film is a look at the life of mysterious Australian university student Lucy, played by Emily Browning. When she runs out of money and her various part time jobs aren’t enough, Lucy decides to pursue a job of a very mysterious and potentially dangerous nature. Essentially she is paid to be drugged and then taken advantage of affluent older gentlemen. Sounds disturbing and it is.

Throughout the film it was hard to suppress a feeling of horrifying anxiety as the implications of her job become clearer. Though Lucy never has any recollection of what happens to her when she is under the influence of the drugs, we are not so lucky. In rather shocking detail we are privy to what exactly happens behind those closed doors. It was clearly Leigh’s intent to shock her audience, however for what purpose, remains unclear. The rest of the film feels like a collection of disjointed vignettes and we never actually really delve into who Lucy really is. Her motives for sticking with the job for as long as she does never become clear and the short glimpses into her life fail to yield any answers and rather make matters even more confusing. The film succeeds in making us feel something but this doesn’t feel earned and thus empty. A beautiful looking picture that it is, Sleeping Beauty seems like nothing more than an exercise in esthetic and deliberate shock that doesn’t ultimately deliver much else.

– Laura Holtebrinck

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