The Starling Girl, 2023.
Written and directed by Laurel Parmet.
Starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams, Wrenn Schmidt, and Jessamine Burgum.
17-year-old Jem Starling struggles with her place within her Christian fundamentalist community. But everything changes when her magnetic youth pastor Owen returns to their church.
Laurel Parmet makes a fundamentally dry yet at times bracingly effective feature debut with The Starling Girl, serving primarily as a showcase for the talents of lead Eliza Scanlen, while showing Top Gun: Maverick star Lewis Pullman like you’ve never seen him before.
17-year-old Jem Starling (Scanlen) resides in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky with her family. Her waking life is defined by never-ending piety and fearing that even the most basically joyous activity – like dancing in her church group – leaves her open to Satan’s sinful touch. But as Jem’s sexual blossoming begins to take hold, she finds herself drawn to married youth pastor Owen (Pullman), who has returned to town after a stint away in Costa Rica. Before long the pair can no longer deny their attraction to one another, creating a trepidatious scenario which threatens their respective standings in the community.
If certainly not the most exciting drama you’ll find in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition field this year, there is a fittingly oppressive quality to Parmet’s filmmaking. It so perfectly cements the soullessness of Jem’s existence, hermetically sealed within a settlement fuelled by sexual shaming, where even a faintly visible bra through a white shirt is deemed a “teachable moment.” Ultimately, she’s destined to be shuttled into a parochial, loveless courtship with Owen’s younger brother Ben (Austin Abrams).
Jem chides herself for curiously touching her body in order to “keep Satan out,” has each of her individual dance steps scrutinised for how they accentuate body parts, and is taught by her parents that joy is vanity. It’s only inevitable that Jem’s natural longing creates major problems in a hostile environment unwilling to foster her sexuality in a healthy way, and that she’d be so easily drawn to the ruggedly handsome Owen, who above all else represents an escape from her prescribed fate.
Despite the potential for a dishy, melodramatic treatment, Parmet’s script maintains a sober, psychologically plausible clip throughout. Owen’s grooming mechanisms aren’t subtle in the slightest, but he’s also far away from being a caricature; he makes valid points about religion’s excess demonisation of pleasure, even though we’re left to consider for ourselves if Owen has ever preyed upon other young women in his community.
Even with Owen’s actions being so clearly wrong, Parmet’s script prefers to reside in some grey areas, offering up a humanistic and empathetic portrait of both main characters, with Owen himself also a product of a system designed to strip people of their passion for anything but God.
The eventuality of Jem and Owen’s affair won’t surprise anyone watching, yet despite one gut-wrenchingly suspenseful mid-film sequence in which the pair are very nearly rumbled by Owen’s wife, Parmet picks the most restrained dramatic rendition of each possible scene. Don’t expect much in the way of screaming matches and volcanic arguments here, the filmmaker opting to linger instead on the more quietly sad, infuriating glimpses of human truth. The somewhat elliptical ending might frustrate some, but it nevertheless completes an arc that’s evidently been in motion since long before we first met Jem.
And the real reason to see The Starling Girl is unquestionably Eliza Scanlen; a tremendously talented rising actress whose malleable face becomes a canvas on which Jem’s torment is displayed. Pullman, meanwhile, is virtually unrecognisable from his nerdy roles in Bad Times at the El Royale and Top Gun: Maverick, underplaying the part of Jem’s mumbly suitor and absolutely refusing to paint him as a garden variety predator. Owen is clearly a man stewed in his own negative feelings, and his initial flattened, alluring cool eventually gives way to nervy agitation when his secret gets close to being discovered.
Jimmi Simpson is also very good as Jem’s painfully repressed father Paul; a former drug addict and musician who can only scarcely disguise how much he misses his glory days, exacerbated by the recent suicide death of his former bandmate. Wrenn Schmidt meanwhile steals several scenes as Jem’s severe, pious mother Heidi, who maintains a steadfast denial about the flat-out failed nature of her marriage.
The overall aesthetic presentation is relatively no-frills by design, though Parmet and DP Brian Lannin are smart to use close-ups of Scanlen’s face as much as possible, while employing a near-comical number of horribly lame Christian songs to underscore just how soul-crushingly pre-ordained Jem’s designated life appears to be.
It’s fair to say that the film may be a little too low-energy for its own good at times, especially during its saggy middle act, but if the sober, patient filmmaking won’t be for everyone, the restraint and outstanding work in front of the camera make it a more than worthwhile sit. A straight-forward and familiar but effective sexual awakening drama, The Starling Girl is enlivened by strong performances from Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.