In two minor but interesting films hitting art houses this weekend, the watchful eyes of intelligent young girls become an effective lens into the mystifying, sad and sometimes violent ways of adults. Both are adapted from books written by women.
In Higher Ground, the directing debut of Vera Farmiga and adapted from Carolyn S. Briggs' memoir, we first meet young Corinne, who lives on a small farm, as she nurses a piglet while intently observing her giggling parents in an amorous moment. In a sense, this is the last of the girl's innocence. Death, poverty and drunkenness shadow the family as it slips into disillusionment, but Corinne seems intent on discovering the fallen world anyway—through literature. But the local librarian repeatedly refuses her the privilege of checking out Lord of the Flies, imploring her instead to attend church.
And so she does, and the film hits its subject: evangelical Christianity. We fast-forward to a teenage Corinne (an impressive Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera), who by now has figured out how to check out William Golding's imperishable allegorical novel about the loss of childhood. A teenage romance with an untalented rocker leads to pregnancy and marriage. A few years of failure later, the two of them turn to a community of Christian hippies, where they will spend more than a decade together. Vera Farmiga takes over as the adult Corinne, and we follow her maturation into an independent woman. The film is notable for its uncondescending treatment of Christianity. The adherents aren't freaks or fools, but simply lost souls in need of shelter from the storm. Higher Ground is about the growth of one such woman, who eventually decides she's ready to head back into the storm. As a director, Farmiga is sensitive to the subtleties of female relationships—especially how women can enable each other's own subordinate status. The film's sluggish narrative arc isn't surprising, and the production design is slack and prone to anachronism, but the story will resonate with those who have struggled with faith, family and loss.
The Hedgehog is a French film, adapted from a Muriel Barbery novel by Mona Achache, that will remind some of Harriet the Spy and other stories about watchful girls in apartment buildings. Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic) is a precocious 11-year-old budding filmmaker who, weary of this sick world, has determined that she will kill herself on her 12th birthday. Fortunately for her, she becomes friends with Renée (Josiane Balasko), the dowdy, hostile and bookish concierge of the building, and Kakuro (Togo Igawa), a handsome older Japanese man who moves into the building. Unlike Higher Ground, this story of a young girl, old before her time, does confound our expectations, in ways both amusing and shocking.