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Review: The Starling Girl

May 19, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Writer-director Laurel Parmet explores the push and pull between religion and sexuality in her confident debut film The Starling Girl, which centres around an inappropriate relationship between a teen girl and her youth pastor, and the circumstances that allow it to develop.

Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is a 17-year-old girl being raised in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky. She performs with her church’s dance troupe, and is expected to be a good, purist role model for the other girls and her younger siblings.

But Jem is also struggling to live up to the impossible double standards of how she was raised; she has been taught that any natural desires are sinful, while those around her are already trying to get her married off at seventeen so that she can “fulfill her duties” and start a family.

On the one hand, she is chastised by one of the other mothers after a dance performance because they can vaguely see the outline of her bra through her shirt, while she is also being openly presented as a prospect to Ben (Austin Abrams), the awkwardly shy teenaged son of Pastor Taylor (Kyle Secor). She is effectively already being sexualized, without even being allowed to naturally explore her own sexuality on her own terms first. But it’s the return of the pastor’s oldest son, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), that really sets Jem’s world ablaze.

The married, 28-year-old Owen has just come back from doing missionary work in Puerto Rico, and assumes the role of youth pastor at the church. Through a mix of repressed desire and starry-eyed teenage infatuation, Jem develops a crush on him. Owen is unhappily married to Misty (Jessamine Burgum), and himself is growing frustrated by some of the restraints of the faith community. Jem tries seducing him, and he chooses not to set boundaries, instead allowing himself to be alone with her and pursuing a physical relationship.

This is inherently tricky subject matter, but it is sensitively handled by Parmet through her nuanced and carefully balanced screenplay. The age-gap between Jem and Owen obviously makes their relationship imbalanced and inappropriate, and the film acknowledges this, while also being eerily believable in how it unfolds. These are two people that the repression of this fundamentalist community has impacted in different ways, with one acting out of youthful naïveté and the other becoming predatory.

Parmet is interested in exploring how this sort of rigid, puritanical community actually allows this type of inappropriate behaviour to happen. This includes placing the blame on young women instead of the older men who take advantage of them, creating a vicious cycle that simply makes victims feel ashamed without ever holding abusers accountable.

It’s a slightly familiar story, but Parmet populates her film with believable characters that keep us engaged throughout the mostly well-paced, nearly two hour run time. Scanlen does excellent work as Jem, finding the right balance between showing her relative maturity and her naïveté. The character carries herself with confidence, but Scanlen is equally good at showing the moments when this slips away and we see the confused teen girl underneath. Pullman also impresses in a challenging role.

The other two standouts of the cast are Jimmi Simpson as Jem’s father, whose own repressed feelings are taking a toll on him, and Wrenn Schmidt as her mother, who we sense has learned to keep her head down but also shows moments of steely resolve. These performances add texture to the film, as Parmet believably captures the feel of this community and the lingering impacts of a repressive upbringing. It’s in all the little details that she observes, while also nimbly handling the complicated nature of the story, that makes The Starling Girl such a captivating film to watch.

The Starling Girl opens exclusively in theatres in limited release on May 19th. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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