The Starling Girl (2023)

‘Starling Girl’ effectively targets religious hypocrisy

If not sheltered in the arms of God, where on earth is an impressionable 17-year-old girl safe from sexual predators? Especially, ones cloaked in sheep’s clothing, like Owen Taylor, the hunky, brooding youth pastor who doesn’t always practice what he preaches? Yes, “The Starling Girl” is one of those movies in which faith and lust battle for a believer’s soul. It’s an either/or dynamic that writer-director Laurel Parmet says she experienced personally as a teenager. Clearly, the trauma still haunts her. And the depth of that discord registers palpably throughout her debut feature.

At times, I found it so visceral, so powerful in its depiction of religious oppression, that it often proved a challenge to watch. Much of that is due to the lived-in authenticity Eliza Scanlen lends to the title character, Jem Starling. Building off her fine work as Beth March in 2019’s Oscar-nominated “Little Women,” Scanlen owns “The Starling Girl” to a degree few young actresses could hope to match. Her every emotion, from shame and guilt to rage and defiance, proves hauntingly honest, leaving no doubt her Jem desires far more from life than a cloistered, fundamentalist community will allow.

Although the metaphor is obvious, this caged Starling needs to be set free to express herself through her love of interpretive dance and older, pensive men like Owen (Lewis Pullman, son of Bill), who has his own issues with confinement. Both he and Jem are fed up with being forced to conform and concede to a form of Puritanism that advocates forgiveness but can’t tolerate sin. It feels almost inevitable that they will succumb to the sultry Kentucky evenings in the backseat of Owen’s minivan.

Separated by a dozen years in age and eons apart in experience, the mutual attraction is nevertheless understandable, and that’s exactly how Parmet presents their forbidden passion because that’s how Jem interprets it. But ultimately, a clandestine romance with an older, married man gnaws at Jem’s conscience. It has her questioning not just her self-perceived betrayal of Jesus but also her own integrity. It’s weighty stuff, substantiated by the very topical issue of young women being exploited by older, more powerful men. Deep down, Jem knows that if and when their affair is exposed, she’ll take the fall, not her manipulative lover.

That Greek chorus of wagging tongues will surely include her less-than-pure parents, Paul (Jimmi Simpson) and Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), who believe their rebellious daughter is already too brazen, blasphemous and disrespectful. In other words, a secular teenager. God forbid! Their solution is to force Jem into an arranged marriage with the teenage son (Austin Abrams) of their pastor (Kyle Secor). But it’s Rev’s older son, Owen, whom Jem has her concupiscent sights on.

This bizarre love triangle is a bit pat and convenient, a case of a writer being too cute. But it’s one of the few flaws in a film unafraid to stretch the parameters of the trite coming-of-age formula. And to stage it in the constricted world of fundamentalist religion is especially gutsy. In many ways, it’s a fitting complement to last year’s “Women Talking,” in which females of faith are given a rare opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of men abusing the women they claim to cherish. Here, that lopsided power dynamic isn’t as pronounced. But because it isn’t, it renders what transpires all the more compelling in uncloaking an odious form of sexual abuse disguised as love.

Movie review

The Starling Girl

Rated: R for sexual content

Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams and Kyle Secor.

Writer-Director: Laurel Parmet

Runtime: 116 minutes

Grade: B+

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