Although a lot of the territory it covers is familiar, everything else about writer-director Laurel Parmet’s coming-of-age drama The Starling Girl is exceptional. It’s not a film that has anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to say about growing up extremely religious or the onset of raging teenage hormones, but through well drawn characters, reasoned pacing, gorgeous cinematography, and spot on casting, The Starling Girl manages to feel fresher and more lived in than many of its similarly minded contemporaries.
Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is a seventeen year old growing up with her Christian fundamentalist family in small town Kentucky. Jem’s mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) is a stern, lifelong true believer, while her former rock star father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), has tried to leave his old ways behind. Heidi and Paul are grooming their eldest daughter for a formal courtship with the dopey and socially awkward Ben (Austin Abrams), son of their pastor (Kyle Secor). Jem has little interest in Ben, but secretly pines after his brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), a significantly older and married missionary who recently returned from Puerto Rico a changed man. The attraction between Jem and Owen is easy to see and mutually felt, but any followthrough would be unquestionably sinful and disgraceful to each of their families.
To put it bluntly, the intersection of horniness and religious beliefs is nothing new to examine, and the only real downside to The Starling Girl is that it doesn’t have much to add to the conversation. Across such varied films and television shows like Fleabag, Boy Erased, Priest, Yes God Yes, and many more like it the push and pull between desire and devotion has provide fertile ground for comedies and searing dramas alike, and they all have to hit the same notes regardless of sexual orientation or identity. There has to be a repressed longing. There have to be feelings of guilt. There has to be newfound confidence. There has to be the danger of being discovered. The Starling Girl adheres to all of these beats without fail, but assembles them into an astutely realized character piece. Even if a lot of these scenes feel akin to other previously made works, Parmet proves that making them work in an only slightly different context all comes down to execution.
The age difference between Jem and Owen is scandalous and boundary pushing, but not in an exploitative way thanks to Parmet’s gentle and empathetic sensibilities. Both are depicted as people who aren’t fully broken, but are breaking down. Owen does everything he can to distance himself from a loveless marriage, while Jem yearns not only for human contact, but also a chance to discover the world outside their community. Owen has been exposed to the sort of worldliness Jem craves, and he in turn sees this young woman as a kindred spirit. Owen has been developing new, contradictory ideas about faith and what constitutes Christian conduct, and Jem is a receptive audience in addition to being a romantic interest. They are playing with fire on numerous levels, but the attraction feels understandable.
Scanlen and Pullman have been perfectly cast in The Starling Girl, displaying exceptional chemistry together and giving individually powerful performances. Pullman gives Owen a laid back demeanour that constantly slips whenever he’s pushed into stressful or uncomfortable situations. Even in scenes where Owen has to bite his lip in a bid to hold back what’s truly on his mind, Pullman is able to deftly show the character’s changing of gears with wonderfully detailed subtlety. For her part as the lead, Scanlen proves a commanding presence, making her turn as a somewhat naive Christian fundamentalist accessible and relatable. Her world is highly specific in terms of faith and social constructs, but Scanlen imbues Jem with a wealth of universal humanity and truth. She makes mistakes that many teens fall prey to, but Scanlen’s performance balances the added stakes of the character’s unique living situation with down-to-earth believability that draws the viewer in rather than freezing them out of this community. Together, they are able to make outsider viewers feel like insiders.
They get tremendous help in the performance department from Simpson and Schmidt, who are equally noteworthy as Jem’s parents. Simpson’s father is wrenchingly dealing with repressed grief and past addiction issues, while Schmidt’s hardheaded nature provides a pitch perfect mask for the character’s perpetual denial of larger issues in her life. Although Parmet backs herself into a slight corner by making the audience want more of these characters than the viewer ultimately gets, they still provide The Starling Girl with an added layer of depth and drama that helps to further reinforce the underlying causes of Jem’s struggles.
The Starling Girl is also a gorgeously photographed film, with cinematographer Brian Lannin making a great impression with finely detailed images. Scenes set in daylight pop with a colourful, naturalistic vibrancy that plays nicely with Scanlan’s material, and evening sequences make great use of natural lighting without ever appearing murky or unsubtly hammering home the darker intent of a given scene. It’s a film where even the moments of obviously handheld photography are stunning to look at; an increasing rarity in independent cinema today.
The great elements of The Starling Girl more than make up for a sense of predictability and a dragging conclusion that could stand to be tightened up a bit. Parmet knows precisely where the strengths of her film lie and astutely highlights them. It might not be the first or best project to highlight a lot of these emotions and themes, but The Starling Girl is an very good example of how impactful such stories can be when told in such a complex, engaging, and reasoned manner.
The Starling Girl opens at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, May 19, 2023.
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