Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl” tells a tale as old as time — the broad strokes of its story about the affair between a naïve teenage girl and a married older man who swears that he’ll leave his wife adhere to convention from start to finish — but the power of this sensitive and devilishly detailed coming-of-age drama is rooted in the friction that it finds between biblical paternalism and modern personhood. While young women have always been taught to be ashamed of their desires (hot take!), Parmet’s self-possessed debut is uncommonly well-attuned to how garbled that gospel might sound to a God-loving girl who’s been raised amid the echoes of a secular culture.
Played by the ever-arresting Eliza Scanlen, Jem Starling isn’t the first Christian fundamentalist to feel an ungodly stir in her bones when she lays eyes on her youth pastor, but this sheltered Kentucky girl belongs to one of the first generations of her sheltered community who grew up with (limited) access to the internet. Digital technology seldom factors into the action of Parmet’s script, but its influence grows along the periphery like weeds around the garden of Eden. An early moment of the movie highlights a kid who was sent to a “retreat” after his parents caught him looking at porn on their computer, and it’s clear that Jem — whose greatest mortal pleasure is leading her church dance group — has probably watched a few YouTube videos for inspiration over the years.
Had she ever thought to look for them on there, she might have even stumbled across some old clips of her lighthearted dad (an excellent Jimmi Simpson), a recovering alcoholic who nurtured dreams of being a rock star in his previous life and now spends his nights sneaking back to his iPod with the same furtiveness that he might hide a can of beer. Paul begins to spiral after learning about the death of his former bandmate, that B-plot serving as a poignant reminder of the life that Jem’s community forbids its members. “When God asks you to give something up it’s just so that you can have more room for him,” Paul tells his daughter on the back lawn of their house one night, but his voice betrays a sacrifice that feels so much bigger than his faith.
Jem, on the other hand, is just aging into her self-denial. One look at bad boy pastor Owen — fresh back from a missionary trip to Puerto Rico and ready to embrace his destiny as a Jesus-loving Jess Mariano — and Jess can’t help but touch herself under the covers at night. Played by “Top Gun: Maverick” star Lewis Pullman, whose nuanced and fully convincing performance hinges on a predatory hunkiness that couldn’t be further removed from the nerd-adjacent roles he’s played so far, Owen commands a divine respect that disguises his own susceptibility to temptation.
There’s nothing the least bit novel about how Jem and Owen begin to orbit around each other, but she’s too young to see the clichés piling up around them, and he’s too busy exploiting those clichés to care. Jem’s short-sightedness can also be forgiven because Parmet renders the usual beats with the same flushed immediacy that Scanlen brings to every scene.
The moment when Owen makes Jem spit her gum into his hand both nails the power dynamic between them, and also the pleasure they take in perverting it (a pleasure that Jem later uses to invert that power dynamic as the film enters its layered second act). We recognize the abuse in action, but how is a girl like Jem — who was raised to believe that taking enjoyment from dancing is sinful — supposed to understand the subtler gradients of right and wrong?
Parmet’s decision to firmly anchor this story from Jem’s POV allows “The Starling Girl” to pulse with its young heroine’s ecstasy and confusion, even if the broad predictability of how things play out gives undue weight to the less familiar specifics of Jem’s religious subculture (i.e. a plotline about courting). It helps that Scanlen’s performance refuses to let this movie feel trite. The Australian actress, whose work in “Babyteeth” and “Little Women” have already established her as a genius of desperate self-becoming, plays Jem as a young woman who feels everything in her life with evangelical intensity. That includes her love for God, which is ultimately too pure for her to understand what part of herself she’s meant to be ashamed of. Owen tells Jem that enjoying God’s creation is a way of honoring Him, and by the end of this gripping and well-realized drama — which only grows more effective during a confident final act that threatens to strip Jem of her personhood — that teaching becomes the only path by which she might be able to restore some faith in herself.
“The Starling Girl” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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