THE STARLING GIRL
July 11, 2023 / levelFILM
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Claire Elizabeth Green, Ellie May, Austin Abrams
Directed By: Laurel Parmet
Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) struggles to define her place within her fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky. Even her greatest joy of dancing with the church group is tempered by worry that her actions are sinful and she is caught between a burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality and her religious devotion. With the return of Owen, an enigmatic youth pastor, Jem soon finds herself attracted to his worldliness and charm. Slowly, he draws her into a dangerous relationship that could upend their entire community.
Written By Darren
Rating 3.5 out 5
The Starling Girl works thanks to an excellent lead performance from Eliza Scanlen, elevating the film which retreads themes and stories we have seen told on screen before with a captivating performance that creates the emotional core of the film.
Films tackling religion have a difficult line to walk, as it is easy to offend with the stories that can be told, but they have to be honest in the story to invest audiences in it. Focused on a fundamentalist Christian community, The Starling Girl finds a balance that does not offend but shows the effects of the fundamentalist views on its young protagonist, who is experiencing her first taste of adult life. And while it does not necessarily have anything new to add to the conversation, there is no denying that Laurel Parmet’s direction evokes a wonderful performance from Eliza Scanlen that takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster over the course of the film.
Jem Starling is struggling to find her place within her fundamentalist community as she is on the cusp of adulthood and starting to develop her own thoughts and opinions on life. Though, when Owen, her youth pastor, returns to her community, Jem’s view is opened as she begins to experience new things in life and learn of aspects of the world that she was previously sheltered from.
Parmet’s screenplay is delicate to how it portrays that fundamentalist community in which Jem resides, portraying it through in a heartbreaking lens as you watch Jem begin to experience adult life and make her own decisions. Arranged marriage and the community’s expectations for its young members are displayed with grace, not passing judgment on them but showing it how it is; while Jem’s sexual awakening is handled delicately to build it from her youthful innocence and first feelings of love, cognisant of the fact that she is being used and not having the same feelings reciprocated. It is in the other characters’ indifference towards Jem where the film finds its emotional devastation. The adult characters, while all dealing with their own struggles, do not leave any second thought to punish Jem for her decisions or cast her aside in the name of their religious views when convenient, even if she was being taken advantage of and being misled by the individuals she placed her trust in. This builds the commentary on religion at the center of Parmet’s screenplay, and while it is strong messaging, it never comes off as heavy handed as it is all from Jem’s point of view and does not pass judgements on the individual characters, instead creating the critique out of Jem’s emotional betrayal and wreckage. While it is never new territory being covered in the film in terms of themes, it is the emotional honesty of the screenplay that makes this story worth telling.
Making the entire film is Scanlen’s performance. Best known for her work in Greta Gerwig’s Pretty Woman and the HBO series Sharp Objects, Scanlen is great from start to finish. There is a quiet and timidness to her portrayal of Jem that instantly bonds you to her character, making her first experience with love feel infectious but ultimately breaks your heart and enrages you when her outcome is revealed by the film’s third act. The film puts the spotlight on her character, making every other character a supporting character to Jem, and Scanlen delivers a truly gripping performance that is alone worth checking out the film for.
There is no distracting from Scanlen, but the supporting cast is equally as impressive as her in their less prominent roles. Lewis Pullman is energetic and charismatic as Owen, instantly allowing the audience to see what Jem sees in him, while subtly dropping hints as to what is truly important to his character to set up the story’s final act. His on screen chemistry with Scanlen is impressive, bringing to life this disturbing relationship with a sweetness that allows the audience to understand Jem’s attraction to Owen, even if they do not approve of it. Jimmi Simpson gives a heart wrenching performance as Jem’s father, a struggling, recovering addict, that in just a matter of minutes shows the challenges that can be faced in such communities by individuals like him. Then there is Wrenn Schmidt as Jem’s mother, carrying her character with grace as she builds this truly devout character who will do anything to appease her religion, even if it means putting her daughter secondary to her beliefs. It's a subtle performance, but one that is a good complement to Scanlen’s lead performance.
While the story is not groundbreaking in the themes it explores, the way in which Laurel Parmet anchors the commentary through emotions of Jem’s character arc allows the cast of The Starling Girl to do impressive work. Thanks to Eliza Scanlen’s truly magnificent performance that is the backbone of the film, The Starling Girl is an interesting look at fundamentalist religion supported by a strong cast and an interesting perspective to this narrative, making it worth a watch for those who are interested in the subject matter.