Movie Review ~ The Starling Girl

The Facts:

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
Rated: R
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.  

THE STARLING GIRL will be exclusively in theaters

Movie Review ~ Nope


The Facts:

Synopsis: The residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Barbie Ferreira, Donna Mills, Eddie Jemison, Fynn Bachman, Keith David, Wrenn Schmidt, Oz Perkins
Director: Jordan Peele
Rated: R
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  With the commercial and critical success of 2017’s Get Out, a zeitgeist horror that broke big at the box office, Hollywood and audiences waited for what writer/director Jordan Peele would do next. Having been recently anointed with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his water cooler conversation starter debut, Peele had the freedom to go wherever his mood desired. That follow-up was Us, and while that 2019 film gave viewers more to scream about than think over, differing from his debut in that regard, it was nonetheless a thrillingly original sophomore outing. Apart from dabbling in producing and lending story ideas/input to other filmmakers (like the strong continuation of Candyman in 2021), Peele’s third feature was kept tightly under wraps, with only the title, cast, teaser image, and vague plot hints dropped during its production.

It’s been some time since I’ve been to a big movie like Nope with little knowledge of what I was about to see. That alone was enough to elicit a few good shivers as the lights dimmed and the Universal logo spun in front of me. Peele had turned genre films on their heads before and upended our expectations with his previous films, so what would this new feature bring? The answer played out over the next two hours, and while it continues Peele’s unbroken record of producing elevated horror films far more complex than you’d imagine at first glance, ultimately, by the conclusion, it adds so much to an intriguing structure that it buckles and becomes shapeless. That’s not to say your nerves won’t get a good jangle overall.

Training horses for the entertainment industry has stretched for generations for the Haywood family, and their name has become synonymous with quality. After losing their father to a tragic accident, Haywood siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, Queen & Slim) and Emerald (Keke Palmer, Hustlers) are left in charge of the family business and associated ranch in a desolate desert basin of California. Neither has quite the same influence as their father, and while Emerald has some showmanship to fall back on, her fast-talking charm can’t keep them afloat for long. With little prospects on the horizon, OJ is considering an offer from the proprietor of nearby Jupiter Gulch to buy their land and all remaining horses.

That deal originates from Ricky Park (Steven Yeun, The Humans), a former child star known for surviving a horrific incident on set during a live taping of his popular television show. Relocating with his family after taking over a rundown wild west town, Park has revitalized the clapboard creaker into a glittery tourist trap, complete with a live cowboy show that’s about to unveil a new act shortly. That new act is just one of the mysteries underlying a larger reveal that Peele keeps concealed for a significant amount of Nope’s runtime. The path to that reveal is a little rocky, though.

First off, it’s clear from the start that Peele had an end game planned and worked backward because all of the pieces fit together nice and snug. That’s great, but it leaves the first half of the movie with a lot of exposition and threads that have to be spun so Peele and the characters can weave them all together later. I think there are a few too many outlying secondary threads looped in that may add some brief dynamics to minor characters but don’t ultimately pan out for the movie as a whole. It’s admirable to give these periphery players weight, but when it distracts from the main narrative, it becomes an issue to solve instead of pass on.

I’m not going to tell you what’s happening in and around the valley occupied by the Haywoods and the Park family. I will say that something has got the horses spooked and is soon making them vanish altogether. Other unexplained phenomena involve items falling from the sky and weather systems that don’t behave as planned. However, saying too much more might lead me to reveal more that I don’t want to be responsible for spoiling. When Peele does pull back the curtain, it’s in ways that would make someone like Spielberg proud, and fans of films like Jaws or Tremors might get a real kick out of the influence Peele certainly took from those earlier movies.

What remains constant in Peele’s films is his knack for strong casting. Oscar-winner Kaluuya is a bit more subdued than usual here, a fitting match for his laid-back, make no waves character. Still, with other players like Brandon Perea as a tightly wired tech agent helping the Haywood siblings and the great Michael Wincott (Hitchcock) growling his way through the role of an excitement-seeking director coming on so strong, it makes Kaluuya seem asleep for much of the film. Yeun is third billed, which is a bit deceitful since his role is relatively tiny compared to Perea and Wincott. By far the most impressive is Palmer in full force mode. Starting the film as the free-wheeling younger sister bothered by little that doesn’t involve her and ending as a take-no-prisoners leader, Palmer is afforded scene after scene to steal by Peele and happily walks away with the film. It’s another example (like Lupita Nyong’o in Us) of Peele having an uncanny ability to write better for his female character than his male ones.

For those wondering, yes, Nope has some freakishly frightening bits…especially one that is returned to often involving an out-of-control animal that was hard to watch. More than anything, it’s Peele’s most visually impressive movie to date. Working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Ad Astra), shooting numerous sequences in IMAX, there’s a large-scale beauty to the film, much of it playing into the Old West themes Peele introduces early and references frequently. That ‘Wild West’ feel comes through in Michael Abels (Detroit) magnificent score, which grows more rousing with each new music cue. 

To say that Nope is my least favorite of Peele’s films is like comparing three satisfying meals from a trendy new restaurant you had and ranking the one served with potato chips lower than the other two served with fries. All fed you and were impressive creations; you simply preferred the two that were a bit crisper overall. By all means, say ‘Yep’ to Nope and go in with as little knowledge as possible (I’ve honestly given you the bare minimum), and I think you’ll enjoy what Peele has cooked up.