Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is a 17-year-old girl who loves her family and loves God, whom she praises not only through prayer but also through participation in her church’s dance troupe. She’s confident and outgoing, enjoying the freedom to ride her bike (which she repairs herself) on country roads and to explore the fields around her family’s home. When the adult leader of the dance troupe resigns, she takes over that role and creates her own choreography as well as leading rehearsals. Above all, like young people the world over, she’s concerned with figuring out how she fits into the world and what her future holds.
Adolescence is a time of changes, and being a young woman in a fundamentalist Christian family doesn’t make it easier to navigate. Jem gets some understanding from her father Paul (Jimmi Simpson), a reformed rocker who hides in their basement to listen to forbidden music, but he’s ultimately too weak to be of much use to her. Her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) is a different story: herself trapped in the church’s patriarchal culture, she’s quick to criticize Jem and seems primarily interested in her as a source of unpaid household labor. As is often the case, Heidi, a woman, acts as a key enforcer for a misogynistic culture that has assigned her that role and would be quick to condemn her should she decline the task.
The church’s response to adolescent sexuality is early marriage following a strictly governed period of “courting” (after permission is granted by the girl’s parents, of course). Jem is sought after by a gawky young man named Ben (Austin Abrams), son of their pastor, and she agrees to the courtship since she doesn’t have any better options. It’s a classic example of market failure: when you have a small pool of eligible matches to start with, and a limited time frame to pair people up, it’s not surprising that some 10s will end up with 3s and vice versa.
Ah, but there’s a serpent in the garden, in the form of Ben’s charismatic older brother Owen (Lewis Pullman). Owen has just returned from a mission and been placed in charge of the church’s youth programs, which means Jem has a lot of contact with him. They are immediately attracted to each other, and the fact that Ben is married doesn’t prevent him from acting on his desires—and while it does take two to tango, the imbalances in terms of power and experience are so great in this relationship that it’s clear who bears most of the responsibility for making it happen.
There’s nothing original in Owen’s grooming of Jem, nor in his excuses for committing adultery (his wife doesn’t understand him, and doesn’t God want people to be happy?), nor in the way he keeps stringing Jem along with promises that a more worldly teen would know will never take place. And yet that oft-told story feels fresh in The Starling Girl, thanks to Scanlen’s performance, the chemistry she and Pullman create, and most of all director/screenwriter Laurel Parmet’s willingness to let the plot develop in an unhurried fashion.
There’s a lot more showing than telling in The Starling Girl, and Brian Lannin’s cinematography is key to making the film work. He captures the beauty of the Kentucky countryside, and Jem’s free and natural relationship with it, as well as the harsher intrusions into her life in the form of man-made strictures and unreasonable expectations as manifested by the church. The latter is a study in contradictions: on the one hand it’s a place of warmth and friendship that appreciates the beauty she creates through dance, and on the other it condemns her for acting on the normal human desires of a 17-year-old girl. The Starling Girl, Parmet’s directorial debut, won her the “Directors to Watch” award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh