Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl begins with an intimate prayer fixated upon the gaze of 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen). You’ll notice how cinematographer Brian Lannin utilizes light to distill what perceived pureness is inside a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky. At first, sunlight is filtered through the confines of church windows. Jem and another group of young girls dance to a gospel song during a church service. An established sense of order exists under the persistence of purity – a life that Jem and others have only known. Thus, any perceived urges or desires not of the collective are noted as selfish and of the devil.
Dancing is the only thing Jem has, which is her process alone. A scene occurs where a woman admonishes her for wearing a shirt deemed too see-through. It frustrates Jem because it feels like there Her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), and father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), are insistent on setting her up with the Pastor’s son Ben (Austin Abrams), whom she barely speaks to and has no chemistry with.
So, Jem is intrigued and slightly smitten when his older brother/youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), comes back from a missionary trip in Puerto Rico. He personifies something that can exist outside of the secular nature of the community and has also been changed by his trip. He leads a meditation exercise during a youth session that makes the teens feel he’s lost it. Within the main crux of the story, Parmet is conveying the classic forbidden love, coming-of-age tale. A girl falls for a married man. The married man is super unhappy in his marriage and looking for a way out. Their circumstances lead them to collapse into each other.
Parmet’s storytelling builds different layers within The Starling Girl that makes for an intriguing watch. There’s a war within Jem that exists in the life she desires versus the one that’s picked out for her. At home, Heidi continually reminds her of the religious path she’s supposed to be basking in. Paul, a former musician and recovering addict, is in a constant flow of worship and mourning the life he’s previously had. His old tales of travels serve as a bridge to the possibility of an outside world Jem hasn’t seen. When she takes over the dance troupe, Jem is immediately reminded that the choreographed piece is too individualistic in nature. That’s her only bastion of expression!
In their ways, aren’t things like love or art a fulfillment of devotion? Specific figures within this community don’t seem all that happy, and others are moving in the confines of structure because it provides them safety. Even within that false sense of security, moments in life will force you to raise your head out of the sand. The Starling Girl successfully breaks the conventional thematic stigma it could fall under by focusing on Scanlen’s performance. Through Jem, she has a muted innocence that serves as a weighted blanket and a distorted sense of optimism.
All her young life, Jem has been told that almost every “out-of-step” action she does is an affront to God. She has never been given a chance to live through an actual teenage existence of crushes, heartbreak, and what the different markers of emerging womanhood mean. So, when somebody like Owen comes around, it feels intoxicating and justifiable – given the religious parameters in which Jem knows the concept of affection exists. Once it gets going, much of the film looks at how this relationship evolves and devolves. Given that, the intriguing story between Jem’s mother and father only realizes some of the potentials it could further explain.
Why do people give up vices and hobbies for a rigid sense of control? Through the latter half of the film, the audience is shown how Paul’s sad story influences Jem to find her sense of freedom – but there’s not so much as to why Heidi is so eager to push through his issues as if nothing happened. The added subtext could have made the ending that much more impactful. While The Starling Girl’s major parts feel reminiscent of narratives before it, a different quality exists that asks who deserves to mark the emotion of desire as evil and how to reclaim it.