For people of faith, religion can be a very comforting thing. Strict observance and ancient traditions may be seen as restrictive or repressive, but they can also be guiding forces for true happiness. The Starling Girl showcases a teenager who sees herself as a true believer but finds that fidelity tested thanks to the inappropriate actions of an adult who should know better. It manages the tough balancing act of critiquing religion without outright writing it off or decrying it.
Jem (Eliza Scanlen) is seventeen years old and living in Kentucky in a devout Christian family. She is an active member of the church, and the return of Owen (Lewis Pullman), the youth pastor, from missionary work in Puerto Rico reignites a crush. What begins as innocent and then borderline inappropriate flirtation quickly turns into something more, a romance that Owen insists must be kept secret. Also struggling with her father (Jimmi Simpson) relapsing back into alcoholism, Jem puts all her energy into planning and choreographing a church dance performance that allows her to take charge and execute her creative vision.
There is a fascinating language that permeates much of this film’s dialogue which defines how its characters engage with the world. “Let’s pray on this” is an indicator that someone either wants more time to think about something or disagrees entirely and simply wishes to put off its eventuality. Any suggestion of something that doesn’t fit within the tenets of the church is seen as Satan’s influence, and Jem herself describes technology as the “easiest way for Satan to reach you” when a peer caught looking at pornography is forced to make a public apology to the congregation.
Jem and Owen also use that language to justify their affair, both believing that it is God’s will that they should be together. Owen dismisses the fact that he is married as something that was never meant to be since he and his wife have always been unhappy, and Jem doesn’t see that she is being taken advantage of because she reciprocates the feelings that Owen expresses for her. It’s most interesting to see within that somehow religiously-endorsed rebellion that Owen still enforces certain rules, like forcing Jem to spit out her gum when he gives her a ride home, even though she’s not in his class or youth group at that moment.
Another aspect that makes this power dynamic feel wrong is the physical size difference between the two protagonists. Though Scanlen is twenty-four, she looks much younger, and Pullman is considerably taller than her. When they sit next to each other in the back of a car or on a bed, the camera frames their interaction to give Owen all the power. But there is also a comfort that Owen gives Jem for finally seeing her, since her father is too distracted by his own demons (not Satan specifically) and the harsh way in which her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) values faith above all even if it comes at the expense of gentleness and kindness.
Scanlen, who has turned in memorable performances in projects like Little Women and Sharp Objects, delivers another stirring turn as Jem, who mostly keeps her emotions bottled up and then only slowly reveals them either when she feels safe or in the rare moments when she gets angry. Pullman portrays Owen as someone who believes he’s doing the right thing, even if much of his behavior is manipulative gaslighting, as is the church’s chilling rush to shame those who don’t fit their definition of compliant and pure. Schmidt and Simpson tap into the complexity of their characters, who are also convinced they are on the right path, especially if it is difficult. Laurel Parmet makes an impressive feature directorial debut with a film that feels very personal and lived-in, never knocking down faith itself but rather its ability to lead people to find deplorable behavior acceptable.
The Starling Girl is screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute