Weaving together a story of gentle compassion and resilience that grapples with what it means to know and own your self-worth, The Starling Girl is a dynamic coming-of-age film. In her debut feature film, Laurel Parmet crafts a timeless story of a young woman discovering herself outside of the confines of familial and communal pressure, and the strength it takes to rebuff a lifetime of morality defined and ruled by religion.
Eliza Scanlen stars as Jem Starling, a 17-year-old girl who begins an affair with her married youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman). Owen is the elder brother of the boy her parents (Wrenn Schmidt and Jimmi Simpson) want her to begin a courtship with, sensual and thoughtful in a way that makes him stand out against the other boys around her. Owen is also a decade older than her and has stockpiled enough manipulative tactics to make it seem as if they’re on an even footing.
To the actor’s credit, there’s certainly a moment of chemistry as the two are standing in the woods, fireflies blinking in and out —fleeting, beautiful, bright — the visual embodiment of what Jem longs for. Of course she’d be interested in Owen who shows her attention, whose voice is gravelly, and who and speaks of God as a higher being so as to not disrupt her faith but also as a power that looks to celebrate their love rather than condemn it. Because why would God push them together if it wasn’t meant to be? If it wasn’t good?
There’s no missing the mess as it steamrolls into us. Part of it is welcomed but not the ill-advised romance itself. No, despite the nature of the affair being steeped in insidious power dichotomies, it’s the sense that it will, at the very least, be a moment of catharsis for Jem. So much of the film is centered on characters challenging her and what drives her — even her dancing which she dedicates to worship is accused of mere vanity as if pursuing something you love with no hope for a reward could amount to anything nearing vain.
And while Jem undergoes a lot of learning through her exploits with Owen, it’s not their moments that drive the majority of her growth. Written with sharp insight and compassion for teenage girls in all their messy ways, Parmet delivers an explosive blow through the hypocrisy Jem begins to unearth that tells a greater story and further pushes her against the invisible boundaries that have kept her caged. In noticing fissures in her family that her mother would rather pretend don’t exist, Jem is able to see both a projection of what she fears becoming as well as a reflection on her community’s inability — or refusal — to admit personal failing that can’t be chalked up to the way of the devil.
All of this is captured with soft natural lighting to expand Jem’s world as the movie progresses. Cinematographer Brian Lannin’s work is beautiful in its simplicity, from moments of dusk rendered with such rich blues they almost seem to seep off the page, to the way Jem is captured in moments of near breakdown, the world closing in on her and therefore the direction by Parmet grows suffocating.
Of the many highs of the film, Parmet’s script is an enormous achievement in how much it manages to convey in relatively inconsequential moments. From the very start, we see that Jem isn’t bound by the performative purity of her community, even though she still believes she’s tied to its doctrine. She eats sweets with glee, with frosting left on her face. She cries ugly, is domineering in her youth group, and is assertive in her dancing. She chooses to pierce her own ear, rather than allow Owen to. From the start, she’s wilder, freer, than those around her — she just doesn’t know it. The magic and essence of the picture are that we can see her strength and individualism so much earlier than she does.
For anyone not keeping track, Scanlen is a force to be reckoned with, her power on display in moments of tightly wound emotions. Her anger is palpable, manifesting itself in her shoulders and the stiff gait she affects after being publicly embarrassed. There’s no shouting or desperate outbursts, but she glowers off-center into the distance when dealing with the criticism she doesn’t like, the way you stave off tears when anger gets its grubby hands on nearby emotions.
It’s yet another fearless performance in a long string of them. Jem’s personal journey to understanding herself and what it means to move throughout the world is emboldened by that performance, but The Starling Girl, from beginning to end, is a gripping and impassioned exploration of the ties that bind, and the ones that require severing for the sake of actualized salvation.
The review originally ran at Sundance 2023. Watch the trailer here.
Featured Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street
The Starling Girl
The Starling Girl - 9/10