The Starling Girl starts out with a dance. A group of young women sashay into a church sanctuary in form-fitting white leotards and flowing skirts. With sweeping arms and lyrical twirls, they move their bodies to praise god.
The camera gradually focuses on one particular face as she dances for her congregation. Eliza Scanlen stars as Jem, the titular character who tries her hardest to be “that good Christian girl” despite her community’s constant criticism. Soon after their dance is finished and the service ends, a church member goes out of her way to tell Jem her bra was visible and that she needed to be more “mindful.”
This type of religious judgment continues throughout her life. Her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) pushes many of the child-rearing responsibilities on Jem, with very little grace or regard for her eldest. The pressure to marry is placed upon her by Pastor Taylor (a menacing Kyle Secor), who offers up his dweeby teenaged-son Ben (Austin Abrams) for courtship. She gets some reprieve in the form of her charismatic father (Jimmi Simpson), a former rock star and drug addict who left the business when he was saved. That soon dissipates when he relapses after the death of his former bandmate.
The arrival of Ben’s 28-year-old married brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), as the church’s youth leader, sets Jem out on a period of self-discovery. His mysterious return after a mission trip to Puerto Rico sparks her curiosity beyond the church and family unit. She starts to lead the dance troop, experiment with herself sexually, and subtly hit on Owen.
When he takes up her advances, she starts to gain new confidence outside of her relationship with God. As their relationship escalates her young age starts to show, being jealous of his wife and subtly acting out in youth activities.
The Starling Girl is ultimately a character study of a young woman in a predatory relationship with her partner and her church. First-time writer/director Laurel Parmet works hand and hand with Scanlen’s portrayal, showing the character’s immaturity and age by the way she eats and her constant need for male approval. Scanlen knows just how to play the character, knowing when to give in to the character’s lust and when to show her innocence.
Pullman does the complete opposite, showing his character’s desires and true motivations from the jump. His chemistry with Scanlen is electric though he knows when to switch on wolf-like tendencies as needed.
Religious sexual abuse and trauma are nothing new to cinema but under Parmet’s direction, Jem’s journey is all the more heartbreaking and relatable. With her wants conflicting with the church’s message of selflessness and god-centered worship, she starts to reexamine her place in her own family and church. When the affair is ultimately discovered, not enough attention is paid to the underage-consent issue, rather focusing on the cheating. Parmet’s message gets lost amidst her characterizations as a result.
After a climactic final 20 minutes, (which I won’t spoil), the film ends with Jem dancing by herself. As she sways in a bar to her dad’s song, it’s the first time Parmet shows Jem as free. It’s a fitting visual to end the film on, showing the character’s own parabolic journey.