Well-acted The Starling Girl tackles controversial topics in a powerful manner
Religion, as it has been for millennia, can be a tricky topic to address in works of art. Anyone who uses their art to criticize the way things are done in certain groups is liable to be highly criticized themselves, if not worse. Anyone who makes such a film has to have the courage of their convictions to not only make it in the first place, but also put it out for all to see.
The Starling Girlis even more daring, taking on Christian fundamentalists and sexual grooming in one fell swoop. Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is part of a very conservative religious sect in rural Kentucky, one that matches up teenagers for potential marriages and chastises girls for wearing a bra with an outline visible through their shirts.
Jem, like her family, is all-in with her church, but also shows signs of chafing at its restrictions. Her slightly rebellious nature comes to a head when she starts to have an attraction to Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), who’s not only the youth pastor but also a 28-year-old married man. Their budding connection slowly gets stronger, leading Jem to question both her faith and her morals.
Written and directed by Laurel Parmet, making her feature debut, the film gains its power through its discomfort. It presents the strictness of Jem’s church in relatively matter-of-fact terms, but it does seem to sit in judgment when it comes to how that harshness pushes Jem and Owen to do things that they might otherwise not ever consider. Only a few scenes don’t directly involve church or talk about religion, making it clear what a massive role it plays in all the characters’ lives.
Parmet seems to want viewers to understand the corrosive effect that a sheltered life like the one Jem leads can have on someone like her. Without any kind of regular contact with secular things (or even slightly secular things like Christian pop music), Jem and a few other characters react in outsized ways when exposed to things outside their world. Owen, who has just returned from Puerto Rico, offers a sophisticated perspective that draws Jem in.
The “relationship” between Jem and Owen echoes the one shown in the recent Palm Trees and Power Lines, although the dynamic is slightly different. While it’s clear from the get-go that the adult male in Palm Trees is a sexual predator, Owen seems to be surprised at the effect Jem is having on him. Not that his hesitancy absolves him of any wrongdoing; the longer he welcomes Jem’s attention, the more of a villain he becomes.
Scanlen plays her part extremely well, showing the naivete and stubbornness of her character while still staying likable. Pullman – looking completely different from his nerdy role in Top Gun: Maverick – walks a fine line set up by his character, and it’s to his credit that the role isn’t completely off-putting.
While the story of The Starling Girl is somewhat unique given its cloistered setting, the larger tale it tells is all too familiar and distressing. The well-acted film has a lot of strong points, and heralds Parmet as a filmmaker to watch in the future.
The Starling Girl is now playing in select theaters.