When you’re raised in any religion, you inevitably reach an age where you either consciously embrace what you’ve been taught or reject some of the tenets that don’t make sense to you. The Starling Girl finds a teenage girl approaching that point in her life. She has grown up in a fundamentalist Christian community where anything bad someone does is attributed to the literal devil. The central character makes a not-atypical adolescent mistake, then has to deal with the judgment not only of her fellow congregants but of herself, given that she’s been taught to perceive such mistakes as evil.
Jem Starling (Little Women’s Eliza Scanlen) lives with her devout mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), semi-recovering alcoholic father Paul (Jimmi Simpson), and younger siblings. Mom and Dad have arranged a “courtship” for her with a young man she clearly has no interest in. Jem actually has eyes for her church’s youth pastor, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), who is just back from a missionary trip to South America and seems worldly and exciting. When the director of the church dance troupe steps down, she persuades him to let her take over.
The two form a tentative bond, one Jem nurtures by manufacturing ways to be in his presence. Then the married Owen crosses a line, turning their relationship sexual. This opens up a Pandora’s box of problems: preventing his wife from discovering his infidelity, keeping their interactions secret from her parents, and Jem’s eventual belief that God wants her and Owen to be together. It is no spoiler to say the combustible situation eventually explodes. Where the movie takes Jem after that is poignant.
The Starling Girl touches on an important idea. As the adult, Owen knows better. He’s supposed to be guiding Jem in his role as youth pastor, yet he allows the ego boost of attracting a teen girl to cloud his sense of reason. The movie doesn’t ask us to consider whether the devil is behind his actions, it asks us to recognize that she is far more likely to face repercussions than he is because of long-standing fundamentalist beliefs that women who don’t fit squarely into a traditional domestic role are “temptresses.” Men are the victims in sex scandals. Owen, of course, is no victim. He may not intend to be a predator, although he certainly takes advantage of Jem’s vulnerability.
Running underneath that is another compelling idea, specifically that people can convince themselves that anything is God’s will, and what one person knows is God’s will might completely clash with what someone else knows is God’s will. This theme is the core of the movie. Jem has been taught anything good is God’s work, anything bad Satan’s. Such an outlook makes adolescent emotions even more turbulent than they already are. Nobody guides her in the gray area since everything in their religion is black and white. The way writer/director Laurel Parmet explores this dynamic is captivating.
Eliza Scanlen is outstanding in the lead role. She exquisitely captures the conflicting feelings Jem has swirling around inside of her. It’s a very layered performance that earns your sympathy. Equally good is Lewis Pullman, playing a character the polar opposite of goofy pilot Bob in Top Gun: Maverick. In fact, I didn’t even recognize him at first. The power of his work here comes in how he conveys Owen’s blindness to his own hypocrisy. He promotes Christian values despite not always living by them. He and Scanlen make dramatic magic together.
The Starling Girl builds to a subtle conclusion that’s packed with meaning. It’s a sensitive, observant film – a coming-of-age story told from a fresh perspective. Jem’s journey will impact you greatly.
out of four
The Starling Girl is rated R for some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.