It starts with a well-meaning smile from another parent or church member. Heaven forbid, it’s a pastor who’s pulling you aside to tell you that you’ve strayed from God’s light. The infraction feels small in your mind, something unimportant like wearing an outfit that’s deemed not modest enough or a liturgical dance move that was too attention-seeking, but the ever-present threat of condemnation has a chilling effect, and the intense community pressure to get back in line with the rest of the flock usually works on keeping people well-behaved—even on teenagers.
That sugarcoat smile is just a thin cover for the near-constant shaming and judgment suffocating Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) as a 17-year-old girl growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky. Laurel Parmet’s brilliant coming-of-age drama “The Starling Girl” captures the vulnerable teen at the moment she’s finding herself, finding love (or is that lust she’s heard so much about?), and figuring out what she wants out of life. It’s complex in the way that faith, community, and family can get complicated. Yet, the film feels nuanced in the way it portrays her internal war between her desires and beliefs, the way she seeks companionship in a congregation that demands punishment for wayward thoughts and sins both intended and committed.
Written and directed by Parmet, “The Starling Girl” finds Jem in a difficult moment in her life. Her dad (Jimmi Simpson) is struggling with a depressive episode after the death of a former bandmate from his secular days, and her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) wants her to avoid talking about it and pretend everything is fine with their family. Jem is underwhelmed by the start of her courtship with Ben (Austin Abrams), but she begins to fixate on his older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), who just got back from missionary work in Puerto Rico with his wife Misty (Jessamine Burgum). As the pastor’s son, Owen is tasked with looking over the youth programs, and Jem finds many excuses to talk with him. Soon, the attraction feels mutual, but is this God’s will or something else?
“The Starling Girl” lives and breathes through Scanlen’s stellar performance. She embodies the teenage frustration over being told what to do all the time, the immaturity of acting out in anger, and the naivety to be groomed by her youth pastor. It’s a seduction that doesn’t feel obvious at first, but soon, she’s seeking his attention and affection because he makes her feel understood and because he’s the only one who talks with her openly and candidly. Scanlen throws herself into her character’s fall from grace, making it easy to see and feel why Jem is so swept up by those powerful first waves of romance, asking herself if it’s possible to love too much in her prayers. She fantasizes about kissing in the shower, ironically, while wearing a purity ring (a symbol of commitment to save your virginity for marriage) on her wedding ring finger. Trancelike, Scanlen’s eyes fill with love whenever she looks at Pullman, and when things go wrong, her character’s hurt is written throughout her body, from tear-stained cheeks to curling up in bed with her thumb in her mouth, reverting to a childish state.
In addition to her amorous moments with Pullman, Scanlen’s scenes with the actors who play her parents, Schmidt and Simpson, are also filled with tension and heartbreak. With them, Scanlen plays the part of Jem as a caregiver for her younger siblings, a defiant teen trying to gain control over some parts of her life, and yet still a child who will break down crying when her parents ground her or confront her with her mistakes. Jem connects with her father much more than her mom, but when his support erodes because of his depression and drinking, she’s even more alone. Their conversations about ego and selfishness also foreshadow Jem’s struggles with her beloved church dance group. “Everything was always about me,” Jem’s dad tells her of his secular days as if warning not to repeat the same mistakes. When Jem asks to lead the group, her mother grills her further, “Is this for God or for vanity?” If the teenage years aren’t meant for vanity, I don’t know when it is. Jem’s fraught relationship with her stern and unemotional mom represents the religious tension between someone questioning their path in life and a true believer following a predetermined plan and refusing to acknowledge any other options.
Parmet creates a beautiful, if painful, world for “The Starling Girl.” Her direction immerses the audience in Jem’s mixed-up world, and her writing makes us feel what the character is going through. Parmet surrounds herself with gifted collaborators who bring Jem’s story to life, from Rebecca Dealy’s casting choices that build up these two families and the rest of the congregation to Ben Schneider’s lilting strings that linger in the air like fireflies in the summer. Brian Lannin’s cinematography captures the rural setting in all of its natural glory at various hours, from pitch black darkness when the affair begins to sneaking around in broad daylight, giving a scope of how big yet small Jem’s world is and how her relationship develops over time.
“The Starling Girl” is so effective because it feels so specific to the character Parmet creates but remains accessible to people who haven’t shared her experience. The film is rich in detail, both in the sense of what it’s like growing up in a very religious community and what teenage rebellion looks like when just acting like an individual is enough to earn a stern talking to from an elder. It balances that sense of suffocation with Jem’s hopes and ambitions for the future, even as they shift throughout the movie. Parmet’s collaboration with Scanlen is remarkable, creating a narrative and character that’s so engrossing that the audience is on her side from the moment she’s scolded for her first misstep. We’re rooting for the Starling girl to feel free to be herself even as she’s still figuring everything out.
In theaters now.