The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2011, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 25, 2011, and received a limited release in the United States on August 26, 2011 by Sony Pictures Classics.
In the early Sixties, Corinne Walker is a young girl who is skeptical about God. After her brother is stillborn, her parents' marriage disintegrates over the course of several years. As a teenager (Taissa Farmiga), she meets Ethan Miller (Boyd Holbrook), a budding musician in local rock band The Renegades. They get married after Corinne becomes pregnant and have a daughter Abigail. While touring with Ethan's band, their bus crashes into a river. Ethan rushes to save Abby, and Corinne pleads with God to save the child. Abby is pulled out of the bus before it sinks into the water, and Ethan believes that God wanted them to live. Ethan and Corinne grow more and more interested in Jesus, eventually giving themselves over to a radical New Testament church.
As adults, Corinne (Vera Farmiga) and Ethan (Joshua Leonard) are living with their children Abigail and Lilly amidst a community of self-described "Jesus freaks". Corinne's daily life consists of hours of Bible study and alternative family practices. The husbands are told by Pastor Bill (Norbert Leo Butz) that they should pay more attention to their wives' sexual needs after a fellow husband's indiscretions caused his wife to leave with their children. Corinne's closest friend Annika (Dagmara Domińczyk) also warns her about keeping the marriage alive by trying new things, such as drawing their husbands' penises.
One day, Corinne's younger sister Wendy (Nina Arianda) shows up on her doorstep after ending yet another bad relationship, and moves in with them. Their father comes over for dinner, and says that children are the most important things in life. He takes responsibility over how losing their baby brother caused him to wreck his marriage. Later, Ethan finds Lilly playing with some cocaine she found in Wendy's suitcase. He and Corinne flush the drugs down the toilet, and Wendy storms off.
As time passes, Corinne gets pregnant again. During a group meeting, Corinne tries to express her thoughts on what they can and cannot see. She gets shut down by Pastor Bill and his wife, because in their doctrine, women are forbidden to preach and cannot teach men. On another occasion, the pastor's wife admonishes Corinne about wearing dresses that could catch the attention of other male members of their community.
Corinne has a boy they name Gabe. Annika is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The community prays for her, and she survives a risky surgery, but suffers brain damage that leaves her confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. Corinne is devastated and questions her faith. She stops attending services, and grows distant from Ethan. During a fight over their son Gabe's abilities, Ethan loses control and attempts to strangle Corinne. They try to see a couples therapist, Dr. Adams (Jack Gilpin), but his zealotry doesn't help them reconcile. Corinne leaves Ethan.
She starts exploring non-religious culture, and during one of her visits at the library, befriends an Irish mailman, Liam Donovan (Sean Mahon), a poetry enthusiast. Over several more casual encounters, they flirt. Liam lends Corinne some books and reads poems to her. During Gabe's seventh birthday party, Corinne's family pushes her to reconcile with Ethan, but she refuses to kiss him. Corinne's mother, who has remarried, is shown accepting her ex-husband's apologies for ruining their marriage, and his renewed affection.
Corinne is conflicted about returning to the church that her children still attend. She enters once while the building is empty, but a dog at the door catches her attention, and she finds herself outside, surrounded by dogs. Later, she sees Liam reading to children at the library, in the company of a woman who seems to be his girlfriend. In the last scene, Corinne attends a service to see Ethan and the children sing. She grabs the microphone and gives a speech in front of the pastor and the entire community, talking about her life experience with faith, her doubts, and what it means to stand on "higher ground".
In April 2010, it was announced that Vera Farmiga would make her directorial debut with the film. Higher Ground is loosely based on the memoir This Dark World by author Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe. The film was produced by Carly Hugo, Renn Hawkey, Jon Rubinstein, and Claude Dal Farra, and executive produced by Matt Parker, Lauren Munsch, Brice Dal Farra, and Jonathan Burkhart. Hawkey also served as the film's musical director. Farmiga's cousin Adriana Farmiga served as the film's artist.
In June 2010, it was reported that Farmiga would also be starring in the film, and that she would be joined in the cast by Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz, John Hawkes, Dagmara Domińczyk, Bill Irwin, and Donna Murphy. Farmiga persuaded her younger sister Taissa Farmiga to portray Teenage Corinne Walker by offering her a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck in exchange. Farmiga stated that she asked Taissa to play the younger version of her character because of the genetic and physical similarities, and the relationship she had with her nephew Fynn, who played baby Abigail.
Principal photography for the film began in June 2010 in the Hudson Valley region, lasting approximately one month. Filming locations included the city of Kingston, the village of Ellenville, and the hamlets of Kerhonkson and Stone Ridge, New York. The film also shot scenes at Rondout Valley High School in Accord, New York.
The film had its world on January 23, 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, Sony Pictures Classics acquired North American, Australian and New Zealand distribution rights to the film. It went on to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film was given a limited release in the United States on August 26, 2011. It was released in New Zealand on March 1, 2012.
The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 10, 2012. The film had its television premiere in Germany and Japan on January 7, 2013 and May 1, 2013, respectively.
Higher Ground made $21,495 in its opening weekend. The film was shown in three theaters in the U.S. for a per theater average of $7,165. The film's widest release was in 81 theaters. It made a further $821,198 combined from U.S. and Canadian box office receipts, for a total international gross of $844,330.
A. O. Scott of The New York Times also gave a positive review, writing,
"There is something remarkable – you might even say miraculous – about the way Higher Ground makes its gentle, thoughtful way across the burned-over terrain of the American culture wars. The film, directed with disarming grace and sharp intelligence by Vera Farmiga (who also stars in it), is about the conflict between skepticism and religious faith, but it does not treat that battle as an either/or, winner-take-all proposition. Movies about belief and believers frequently succumb to woozy piety or brittle contempt, but Higher Ground belongs, along with Robert Duvall's The Apostle and Michael Tolkin's under appreciated Rapture among the elect."
Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review, awarding it 3.5 stars out of 4, writing,
"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."
David Edelstein of Vulture wrote,
"Actress Vera Farmiga's directing debut, the religious drama Higher Ground, is amazingly graceful. The movie centers on Corinne (played by Farmiga), who joins and, a decade later, breaks away from a fundamentalist religious order, but the tone isn't irreverent, exactly. The movie is flushed with hope, wonder, heartbreak. In the memoir on which it's based, This Dark World, Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-wrote the screenplay with Tim Metcalfe) rejects God but can't stop longing for Him. And Farmiga frames the film version as a kind of love story, beginning with Corinne opening her eyes underwater, at the moment of her baptism, seeing men smiling down like heaven's welcoming committee. She doesn't ever want to come up for air."
Higher Ground received positive reviews from critics. The film received an 81% approval rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 88 reviews, with a weighted average of 7/10. The critical consensus reads, "With Higher Ground, star and debuting director Vera Farmiga takes viewers on a challenging spiritual journey whose missteps are easily overcome by its many rich rewards." It was also given a score of 74 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 34 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".