The United States of America, a country founded on principals of religious freedom (among other things), has always struggled to reconcile fundamentalist impulses with personal liberty. And though at times we seem to lean more heavily towards secular humanism than any one theology, the current of Christianity as a prime directive runs deep in the nation’s veins. In writer/director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature, The Starling Girl, we find ourselves immersed in these kinds of tumultuous waters, as a young woman on the verge of adulthood rebels against the patriarchal hypocrisy of her God-fearing community. A fraught coming-of-age tale filled with sexual drama, the movie showcases the considerable talents of the director and her star, Eliza Scanlen (Babyteeth).
Scanlen plays Jem Starling, raised in a strict, churchgoing home in Kentucky. She is more or less obedient, though at 17 is starting to feel the pull of certain hormones. Her parents—Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt, The Good Catholic) and Paul (Jimmi Simpson, Silk Road)—hope she might accept to be courted by the church minister’s younger son. He’s kind of a stick in the mud, however. It’s really the hunky Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick), the older, twentysomething sibling, just back from a mission in Puerto Rico, who catches her eye. Unfortunately, Owen is very much married. Still, given that he is also the new youth pastor, he and Jem will spend lots of time together.
Before long, it becomes apparent that very few people here follow all the expected rules. Even Paul Starling has at least one devastating secret. In addition, Parmet enjoys revealing the many ways in which it’s the women—despite the clear mandate that the men should be in charge—who often act as enforcers. In the Starling household, Heidi calls the shots, all the while maintaining the pretense of Paul’s hegemony. He’s a gentle soul, though, except when he drinks (another infraction).
In the midst of these contradictions, Jem’s attraction to Owen increases, and—surprise, surprise—he reciprocates. What thereafter unfolds is both joyous and destructive. Scanlen, with her emotional intensity, makes us feel every beat of Jem’s growing independence, even as a devastating backlash looms ahead. Once awakened, this Starling girl will not go back to sleep.
All the actors shine, even in smaller performances. The world feels fully realized, with Parmet careful to give everyone their point of view, even as she is clearly on the side of Jem’s emancipation. There are villains, for sure, but we can see how they have also been trapped by the system. When oppression is the name of the game, we all lose. Escape, little starling, while you can.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
Bleecker Street; Laurel Parmet; The Starling Girl movie review