Synopsis: 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.
Stars: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Kyle Secor, Claire Elizabeth Green, K.J. Baker, Jessamine Burgum, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Ellie May, Austin Abrams, Chris Dinner, Paige Leigh Landers
Director: Laurel Parmet
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Over the last several years, there have been several documentaries and limited series across streaming services that have taken eager viewers behind the scenes into religious communities, unveiling practices that may seem foreign, strange, or wrong to an outsider. Removing the judgment that comes with a lack of understanding and putting aside some of the shock and awe meant to accompany these programs, I’ve appreciated getting these glimpses into a different way of finding a path forward in spirituality or family.
One of those paths is through belonging to a church where the literal interpretation of the Bible is observed, like the one fictionalized in The Starling Girl. Correctly understanding and following God’s Word is the only way to your final reward, and those who stray are doomed to lead a cruel life after death. It’s in this community of devoted faith that we meet Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women), a 17-year-old of good intentions who has reached a point in her adolescence where the world seems incredibly small when staring straight ahead at the mirror but also temptingly large if she glances over her shoulder at what might be waiting just out of reach.
As she approaches her 18th birthday, her parents (Jimmi Simpson, Fool’s Paradise, and Wren Schmidt, Nope) are preparing for the courting tradition to begin, likely with preacher’s son Ben (Austin Abrams, Do Revenge), a strange boy Jem has no inclination toward. Ben’s older brother Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick) has recently returned to town with his wife to continue his youth ministry and learn the ways of the church from his father. Drawn together through some indescribable pull, Owen and Jem are surprised at how the other has changed while Owen was away. They begin a flirtation (already considered taboo and not just because of their age-difference) before giving in to an illicit interaction that threatens to derail their lives and families.
While ostensibly a work of fiction, it wouldn’t be hard to squint your eyes and see writer/director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl being a dramatized version of a story that came out of one of these fundamentalist sects that operate along the Southwestern Bible belt. That’s partly where Parmet’s inspiration originated, with the filmmaker using her lived experiences and research within similar Christian communities. That authenticity in tone helps Parmet’s film through a few of the slower and more repetitive passages, bridging the gap between its fiery high points when you can’t look away even though you feel you should.
Aiding that pull is Scanlen’s immensely controlled work as Jem. As a coming-of-age story, The Starling Girl is already firing on all cylinders showing a young woman learning the hard way that first love isn’t without pain, but Scanlen’s deep well of feeling gives it an extra kick of grief. It’s tough in the final act when Jem faces an imbalance of consequences that will likely frustrate most viewers as much as it did me. Parmet manages to handle both sides of the agreement without ever coming down harshly on either, it’s clear something terrible has happened, but Parmet is not here to tell audiences about the inequalities that exist in the world.
While the film is often quietly riveting, it’s often just too quiet to gather much momentum for longer than a few scenes at a time. Scanlen is in nearly every scene of the movie, but she can’t be in multiple places at once, so it’s up to others to carry some of the burden. Pullman is a good partner for Scanlen, and the two have an electric chemistry that feels dangerous from the start. Richards also has a few solid passages as Jem’s devout mother, forced to make decisions based on faith instead of maternal instinct. Several supporting characters and side plots are trite, causing the film to go flat at critical junctures.
Likely to find more of an audience when it flies onto streaming/on demand, The Starling Girl is a respectable debut for Parmet as a writer/director. Teaming with cinematographer Brian Lannin (Somebody I Used to Know) for some gorgeous views of Kentucky at several gauzy moments, you can tell Parmet has a voice and a viewpoint we’ll get more of.