Review: The Starling Girl Is an Indie Gem About Young, Confused Love that Deserves an Audience
Movies like The Starling Girl seem to spring out of every film festival and then never really make a dent when/if they get an actual wider release in any format. They claim to shine a light at some isolated corner of America (time periods may vary), and alert us to the fact that those pockets of existence are just as damaged and full of secrets as the big cities. And while the feature film debut from writer/director Laurel Parmet probably won’t be seen by many, it is a better-than-expected version of this well-known tale thanks in large part to a devastatingly convincing performance by Australian-born actress Eliza Scanlen (Little Women, Sharp Objects, Old) as Jem Starling, a 17-year-old Kentuckian attempting to find her place within the fundamentalist Christian community of which she’s a part.
Jem is not a rebel; she’s a believer with some small amount of ambition. We see her as a part of a dance troupe in her church that does pure, non-suggestive dances. She melts down when one of the women in the congregation points out politely that her bra is somewhat visible under her white, long-sleeved blouse. She’s not mad at this woman for mentioning this indiscretion; she’s mad at herself for letting it happen. Jem’s parents are good people as well. Mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt, Nope) is somewhat overly protective, but that’s probably the case for most of the parents in this rural town. But her father Paul (Jimmi Simpson) has a different background; he used to be a musician (the secular type) and had various issues with substance abuse that seem to quietly resurface over the course of the film. Because of this, he’s a little more forgiving when Jem wants to do something that might be considered slightly sinful, like take over leading the dance troupe, when the adult supervisor must take leave to have a baby.
The pastor at their church (Kyle Secor) has two sons: Ben (Austin Abrams) is about Jem’s age and is being floated as a possible suitor for her. He’s a little weird and socially awkward, so this doesn’t sit well with Jem. But she’s willing to go along. And then there’s the returning older son Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick), just back from missionary work in Puerto Rico, an experience that has clearly changed him and his belief in what is holy and what isn’t. Owen is married, although we barely see his wife, and the pull between he and Jem is strong, as she is attracted to him by his worldliness and good looks. They enter into a full-on affair, and the film becomes something of a countdown until the truth is revealed—and the upheaval is massive.
Jem becomes convinced that the two of them will run off together and live meaningful, still spiritual, lives somewhere else. But it becomes clear that maybe he doesn’t feel quite the same way, as he begins to panic when the truth even threatens to be exposed. Scanlen’s portrayal of young love, desperation, and mixed feelings about what she must give up if she wants to pursue this relationship is so convincing that it breaks your heart even when she is at her happiest—perhaps because of that. The film has no real dramatic tension, since it’s fairly clear where this path is heading, so it’s the interactions between Jem and Owen, Jem and her struggling parents, Jem and her dance troupe, that make this film feel different, with a deeper understanding of the complex emotions at play.
The film isn’t lascivious, but it also makes sure we know exactly how things have progressed between this couple. And when Owen’s wife is brought in to supervise the dance troupe and provide notes as to the appropriateness of Jem’s work, tensions run high and Jem becomes the kind of person we never thought she was capable of being. The film’s final act doesn’t wrap up exactly how I’d expected it might, but I like that Jem chooses to honor her family in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. Not everything is tied up neatly, or at all—much like most messy, uncertain lives. This one feels like something of a find, and I hope a few people stumble into this movie and discover some of its latent powers.
The Starling Girl is now playing in theaters.
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