Eliza Scanlen‘s lead performance is by far the best thing about “The Starling Girl,” writer / director Laurel Parmet‘s coming-of-age film about a teenager struggling with her sexuality in a fundamentalist Christian community. When she starts an illicit love affair with an older man, it becomes a recognizable story that’s packaged in a draggy, if visually appealing, movie.
Jem (Scanlen) lives with her devout parents (Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt) in rural Kentucky, a place where religion is the most important thing in life, taking priority over everything else. It consumes almost every aspect of her being, including how she dresses (she’s scolded for wearing a dress where the outline of her bra is visible underneath) and what makes her worry (she’s a member of the church’s dance group, but is constantly concerned that her body’s movements are sinful).
After her 17th birthday, it’s determined that it is now time for the young woman to begin “courting” so she can find a suitable husband within the church. She doesn’t feel a lot of attraction to the boy that’s suggested for her, but Jem becomes intoxicated when older youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman) returns to town after doing missionary work. Fully aware of her crush on him, Owen takes advantage of Jem’s immaturity and budding passion by starting a physical affair.
Scanlen captures these feelings of infatuation and confusion well, and Parmet handles her character with sensitivity and care. This is a tale of oppression and repression, and the film artfully expresses the universal experience of sexual humiliation that many women face. It’s even more damaging in certain Christian and other religious circles in society, where people in power use their holy texts as an excuse to force their values on others. Religion, by design, creates and causes a great deal of shame and control that is especially painful and for women. The film doesn’t shy away from this criticism of Christianity, a religion that’s clearly detrimental to Jem’s well-being.
Parmet’s story grows morally complex once sex enters the equation, and I had a tough time with a couple of things in the film which no doubt were fully intended to be confrontational and distressing for audiences.
The idea of a hunky youth pastor exploiting and abusing a young, naive girl’s affections are uncomfortable at best and reprehensible at worst, but the film first makes Owen out to be a predator and later shows him as a kind and sensitive man who’s doing the right thing because that’s what his heart wants (ick!).
Jem is relentlessly blamed for giving into Owen’s charms, and other characters berate her as being “controlled by Satan.” While this captures what it must feel like to be part of a very strict Christian community where it’s not okay to have any sort of sexual feelings, it also creates an unpleasant paradox in the film: is this an affair that we should be rooting for or against?
“The Starling Girl” has interesting subject matter, but Parmet takes too long to get to the most compelling aspects of her story. The ending is especially drawn out, and the story feels too familiar. Despite a terrific lead performance, the film is not strong enough to stand out from the pack.
By: Louisa Moore