Coming of age in a strict religious sect, sinners and saints, right and wrong, impossible expectations, unwanted crushes and dangerous love, this is the imperfect storm hitting seventeen year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) in writer/director Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl”.
A member of a rigid Kentucky fundamentalist Christian community, Jem has given her soul to God and her dedication to her church.
Jem’s parents Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) and Paul (Jimmi Simpson) are strict regarding the ways of their church, the father having found God after a life of “sinning.”
With her characters introduced and the film’s setting well established, Parmet draws a sharp line in the sand. putting her cards on the table.
The filmmaker rightfully disapproves of how such puritanical ways of life are unhealthy for children who, especially during puberty, already have so much shaping their minds.
“The Starling Girl” shows how unhealthy such narrow and uneducated world views (found in the more extreme fundamentalists religions) can be detrimental to a child’s life, often bordering on abuse.
With the sect’s prim attitudes and over-reliance on the teachings of “the good book” (or their interpretation of it), Jem and the children of her community are not being raised to handle the real world. They are being programmed to only know the world within the confines of the community.
Soon Jem, falls into a sexual relationship with an older member Owen (Lewis Pullman). As they rationalize to one another, “This doesn’t feel like sin.” Everything about their coupling is wrong, sinful or not. She is an easily manipulated teenager (another wound of her upbringing) and Owen is certainly a predator.
Director Parmet has spoken on how the pairing is based on an incident from her youth, using the guilt over her own experiences to shape the story that would become this film.
The screenplay uses the fundamentalist thinking to show the abusive confusion they put into children’s minds. Jem is shamed by a woman for her bra being visible and another (her lover’s wife) tears her down for dancing as if she wants her fellow dancers to worship her instead of God.
Jem is slowly pushing back on being corrupted by her church and it is heartbreaking to see her he manipulated by Owen and the religious doctrine that paralyzes her community.
Parmet navigates the contradictions and hypocrisy of religion without fully demonizing it. The screenplay gets to the heart of the conflict so many Christian teens face. The natural feelings of puberty (which their God supposedly put inside them) are frowned upon and fear of damnation is the cross they are forced to bear. Shame is what these cult-like communities are preaching.
Eliza Scanlen is terrific, the actress wears the sexual awakening and internal confusion naturally, her performance is heartbreaking as she falls for Owen’s seduction and is bullied into believing Satan is guiding her actions by her pastor (Kyle Secor), who shames her in front of the congregation by making her beg for forgiveness.
Lewis Pullman underplays Owen nicely, but the character’s predatory intentions slither slowly in every moment.
There is a complexity that lies within Parmet’s screenplay, as so many internalized religious issues come to the forefront in little moments as Jem tries her best to become the architect of her own truth.
The director uses a patient camera to fully immerse the viewers into the surroundings. The stillness of the filmmaking further enhances the quiet power of her lead character.
Jem isn’t rebelling against her God. She is questioning the validity of the oppression that is forced upon women in groups such as this.
Scanlen’s dignified performance anchors “The Starling Girl,” an understated film about a girl who finds redemption and forgiveness from the one person who truly matters, herself.
The 2023 Sundance Festival ran from January 19th to the 29th.