Eliza Scanlen plays a devout Christian whose faith is tested by her attraction to an older pastor in this Kentucky-set debut

The Starling Girl

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘The Starling Girl’

Dir/scr: Laurel Parmet. USA. 2022. 116mins

Jem (Eliza Scanlen), the teenage daughter of devout Christian parents, finds her faith at odds with her burgeoning sexuality when she becomes attracted to a much older pastor in Laurel Parmet’s impressive feature debut, which explores the grey areas between blind faith and individual choice. Parmet’s film is inspired by her time spent with patriarchal religious communities and her own relationship with an older man, and follows other works that have foregrounded similar issues like The Other LambApostasy and, of course, Women Talking. This, together with its sensitive approach, is likely to help The Starling Girl (developed through the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Programme) gain further festival traction following a premiere in US Competition at Sundance. Strong performances by Scanlen and Lewis Pullman are a highlight.

Parmet strikes a careful balance between Jem as both victim of, and willing participant in, her own experience

Australian actor Scanlen (Little Women, Babyteeth, TV’s Sharp Objects), now in her mid-20s, is believable as the 17-year-old girl daughter of Paul (Jimmi Simpson) and Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) whose life revolves around worship, bible study and chores. As the family surname may suggest, Jem has always been content to be part of a wider flock and, in the film’s early stages, projects an air of serenity — dressed in pastel colours, her hair in loose waves, she fervently prays to “glorify God in all I do”. As she bicycles through the glorious Kentucky countryside (the film shot in the southern state in the summer of 2022), Brian Lannin’s cinematography captures the lush colours of her rural surroundings, finding the light in the trees which reflects off her crucifix necklace.

Yet, as seemingly expansive as Jem’s physical horizons are, they are also something of a prison, cutting her off from the wider world. When Jem is remonstrated for allowing the outline of her bra to be visible through her dress during a dance troupe performance, it’s the first indication of the strict moral codes that restrict every aspect of her life. Initially compliant, Jem’s increasing awareness of her own desires, not to mention her attraction to 28-year-old married youth pastor Owen (Top Gun: Maverick star Pullman), begins to test her faith. When Owen returns her attentions, a seismic shift occurs in this young woman.

This idea of an older man abusing his position to manipulate a naive younger woman is a delicate issue, and Parmet strikes a careful balance between Jem as both victim of, and willing participant in her own experience. While there’s never any doubt that Owen is the guilty party here — despite the response of Jem’s mother and Church elders, who place the blame firmly at the young woman’s feet — the narrative is shaded. Jem has agency in this sexual exploration, even if she is swayed by Owen’s proclamations of love and his assertions that their union is part of God’s plan.

There’s a palpable intensity when the couple are together; the frame seems to shrink around them, they take up equal space. Parmet includes moments where Jem seems to recognise and revel in her new sexual power, Owen completely under her spell. She unfurls in his presence, their growing closeness making her feel closer to God even though she feels guilt about their liaison. The film uses the ever-changing natural light as something of an emotional motif; key moments take place in the dark, and one pivotal sequence sees Jem hidden in a bathroom for hours, the sunlight streaming through the window gradually fading across her stricken face.

Yet Jem is not the only one struggling to conform. For his part, Owen is equally as lost in a faith (and a marriage) that clips his wings, and misguidedly sees Jem as something of a free-spirited saviour. Jem’s father Jimmi, an alcoholic who has supposedly been saved, clearly yearns for his old freedoms. Notably, the supposed sins of these men are pushed resolutely under the carpet while Jem’s are — in one difficult scene – aired in front of the entire congregation. Dressed in virginal white, her voice shaking, she asks for a forgiveness she is clearly no longer sure she needs.

Scanlen effectively embodies her character’s internal struggles, unable to vocalise her growing frustrations lest she forfeit her purity — which is seemingly her only value. The slow-burn realisation that she can keep her faith while also discovering her own truths is also reflected in Ben Schneider’s excellent score, in which upbeat, optimistic notes are undercut by a discordant, ominous hum of discontent. 

Production company: 2AM

International sales: WME, Abraham Bengio abengio@wmeagency.com

Producers: Kevin Rowe, Kara Durrett

Cinematography: Brian Lannin

Production design: Mollie Wartell

Editing: Sam Levy

Music: Ben Schneider

Main cast: Eliza Scanlan, Lewis Pullman, Jimi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt