THE STORY – Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling struggles to define her place within her fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky. Even her greatest joy — the church dance group — is tempered by worry that her love of dance is actually sinful, and she’s caught between a burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality and an instinctive resistance to her mom’s insistence that the time has come to begin courting. She finds respite from her confusion in the encouragement of her youth pastor Owen, who is likewise drawn to the blossoming Jem’s attention.
THE CAST – Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams & Jessamine Burgum
THE TEAM – Laurel Parmet (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
For the small-town Kentucky residents in Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl,” God and religion are more than just a once-a-week appearance at church. They guide every aspect of life, from the residents’ behavior and how they present themselves to the clothes they wear. But, too much control usually doesn’t bode well for anyone, and certainly not for a teenager discovering her place in the world.
Parmet’s feature directorial debut tells a coming-of-age story that has been seen before yet adds complexity and intrigue with its fundamentalist Christian backdrop. Many parts of the film echo Karen Maine’s great dramedy “Yes, God, Yes,” about a young Catholic woman feeling tempted by her sexuality that is led by the “Stranger Things” star Natalia Dyer. But “The Starling Girl” takes religion and sex further when exploring the shame a young woman might endure just for discovering her body.
When we meet 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), she is performing with her church dance troupe, feeling free and loving every minute of it. But it’s not long until an older woman shames her for having the outline of her bra show through her dress. Embarrassed and mortified at the thought of her behavior, she runs out crying. Jem and the other women in this rural Kentucky town have been taught to hide their bodies – often wearing long clothing to cover as much skin as possible – and to not bring attention to themselves. But that’s hard to do for any teenager, including Jem, who loves to add a little flair to her dancing. However, adults have no problem telling Jem to focus on courtship with a young man in the community. The internalized fury and resentment are portrayed brilliantly by Scanlen, who continues to be a solid actor in projects she’s been in, from “Sharp Objects” to “Little Women.”
Much is asked of this young woman who can’t catch a break from misogyny or enjoy being a carefree teen. Her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), expects Jem to tend to her younger siblings, while her father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), struggles with substance abuse following the death of a former bandmate. Paul’s storyline, a former country singer who went clean and turned to God, comes and goes throughout the film (it would have been great to explore more of this history). Still, it is another important look into what this community considers sinful behavior.
With so much going on in her life, Jem finds solace in her youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), a handsome 28-year-old back at church after a mission trip. He, too, seems a little out of place in this ultra-conservative area and struggles with what’s expected of him, like his failing marriage. But, when Jem and Owen are together, they finally feel recognized and important. Over time, their relationship crosses serious lines, and though they understand them, neither dare leave. Jem doesn’t care that he’s married or that she’s going against everything she’s been taught in the church. In fact, it awakens something that has been so repressed and pushed down that she finally feels freedom for the first time. One can’t help but think of so many other young women and men who have been made to feel ashamed or afraid for engaging in human nature. Owen also recognizes the serious trouble of the relationship but enjoys the spotlight a burgeoning young woman provides and the power he possesses.
Together on screen, Scanlen and Pullman have wonderful chemistry as they navigate the rocky waters of their secret affair. Scanlen reminds us of any young woman in love and with a heart full of hopes for a future with this man, while Pullman portrays a knight in shining armor of sorts, though he also uses his authority to take advantage of her. Parmet finds a way to balance her storytelling so that we understand both characters’ motives and sympathize with them, even though there’s still plenty to look down upon. We can’t help but want to tell Jem to save herself from inevitable heartache when Owen promises to leave his wife for her. This relationship is doomed from the start, leading to an explosive final act where our young heroine truly sees the vitriol in her community and family.
“The Starling Girl” goes beyond the familiar coming-of-age story by looking at how religion impacts how young women are supposed to behave and what happens when they stray from the norm. With Scanlen in the lead, she brings life to Jem in a nuanced way, allowing us to empathize better with the character. Parmet has already shown that she’s a talent behind the camera and hopefully will deliver even more stories about complex women.