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‘The Starling Girl’ review: Eliza Scanlen in a clever study of a teen torn between religion and desire

For many, especially in the South, Christianity is not just a religion; it’s a way of life. In these communities, the Bible is interpreted literally, with rigid gender roles and customs that favor purity over everything else. Modesty is taught to young girls early on, with an emphasis on covering their bodies at all times. Long skirts, sweaters, even when it’s hot, long hair, no makeup, a demure attitude. For girls in these communities, life revolves around obeying their parents until it’s time for authority to hand over power to their husbands. But at the center of it all is the Church: an all-knowing, all-seeing entity to be feared and respected, lest you be rejected at the gates of heaven. Life on Earth is about the fate of one’s immortal soul. To want something different is to be overtaken by the grip of Satan.

This is a problem for The Starling Girl‘s Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), an energetic 17-year-old girl who can’t help but love attention wherever she can get it. But in her small evangelical community in Kentucky, she has more pressing responsibilities. She is the eldest daughter in a large family, which means that she is effectively a second mother, taking care of the children as well as the household. Her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), relies on Jem to be the family’s rock in place of her father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), whose drinking problem isolates him from everyone else. Like Jem, Paul quietly longs for something more, unhappy with the smallness of his existence. Before settling down, he was a country singer and played with a band called The Deadbeats. Jem also enjoys music—she dances in the church’s worship dance group.

The Starling Girl

It comes down to

An illuminating portrait of a Christian coming of age.

Event location: Sundance Film Festival (American Dramatic Competition)
Form: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams, Wrenn Schmidt, Jessamine Burgum
Director-Writer: Laurel Parmet

1 hour 56 minutes

The Starling Girl begins with Jem performing with the group, her main source of physical joy. But even as she tries to free her body with movement, the eyes of the church judge. Immediately after the performance, Jem is shamed by an older woman in the church because her bra is visible under her shirt. Embarrassed, she immediately retreats to a private place to cry. The movie is full of moments like this – an elderly woman warning Jem about her body and how easily it can be damaged. One minute she’s body-shamed, the next her mother is pressuring her to think about getting married and having kids. Writer and director Laurel Parmet understands the contradiction of adulthood demands while demonizing any evidence of its occurrence.

This film, like Karen Maine’s underrated debut a few years ago, seems Yes God yes, struggles with the conflict Christian girls feel when they acknowledge their own sexuality. While other girls explore sex and romance without fear of fiery damnation, the Maine and Parmet heroines come to feel that pleasure is inherently sinful. But while Yes God yes‘focus is masturbation, The Starling Girl is a bit more abstract. Parmet is more concerned with the influence of shame on the way a body moves. Scanlen portrays Jem as a girl at war with herself, trying to escape the constraints of shame – not only when she is alone, but also in public. There’s a restlessness in Jem, who wants to be noticed in ways she thinks are godless. Her dance moves have added flowers, small expressions of her budding sexuality. The other girls notice and quietly blame her. Even her mother seems to think Jem loves herself a little too much. Takes too much pleasure in her youthful beauty. Demands too much independence.

But Jem wants love, passion and warmth. She wants to be able to move her body freely, through dance and through life. Her youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman), seems to understand that. He also feels out of place in their buttoned-up town. As they begin to secretly meet, Jem finds herself the center of attention for the first time in her life. It doesn’t matter to her that he’s married; all that matters is that he seems to understand her. In some ways, Jem’s time with Owen mirrors the little private moments she shares with her father. Owen and Paul are both gentle men with long hair and sad eyes, quietly yearning for more than their small town can give them. They too feel oppressed by their strict community, but their discontent has a bitter edge, with undertones of misogyny that Jem is still too young to understand. The darkness of Owen’s desire for Jem is slowly revealed throughout the film, building to an explosive climax.

Pullman plays Owen as a man who knows he is a predator and uses Jem as an outlet for his frustration and feelings of powerlessness. Like many older men who take advantage of young girls, he sees himself as something of a romantic hero who is simply a victim of circumstances. More insidious, he’s using God to convince Jem that what they’re doing is right. But Parmet’s empathetic way of filming allows us to understand what her heroine sees in this troubled elderly man. Perhaps Jem believes she can be to Owen what her mother cannot be to her father – by encouraging his creativity and nurturing his desire for adventure. These are naive views, but if the only option for her is a life of low-key servitude, it makes perfect sense to want something different.

Of The Starling Girl2018 sharp objects and that of 2019 Baby teeth, Scanlen has proven himself adept at portraying strange and fascinating young women. There is quiet strength in Jem’s eyes – on some level she knows her potential, even when adults try to shame her into thinking otherwise. One of the smartest things about Parmet’s film is the way it depicts internalized misogyny in her female characters. The Starling Girl is a complex, often disturbing portrait of how women have been pressured to shrink themselves and pass that shame on to their daughters. Somewhere in them they know it causes misfortune, but for them it is a small price to pay to gain access to the kingdom of heaven. As the world changes around them, these women are convinced that the old ways are best. But as Jem’s journey shows us, repression and shame always lead to rebellion.

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