The Starling Girl
2023, R, 116 min. Directed by Laurel Parmet. Starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Austin Abrams, Jimmi Simpson, Jessamine Burgum.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., May 19, 2023
Eliza Scanlen could be 16 forever. She’s played a teenager in Sharp Objects, Little Women, Babyteeth, and Old, and now The Starling Girl is added to that roster. Scanlen is no stranger to difficult, nuanced parts, and Jem Starling is perhaps her biggest balancing act yet – the eldest daughter of a deeply fundamentalist Christian family who finds herself under the spell of her youth pastor, Owen (Pullman).
The Starling Girl holds up a mirror to these religious communities well. Mere months before she turns 18, the Starling family is desperate to set up Jem with their church pastor’s son, Ben (Abrams), younger brother to Owen. It’s the sliver that turns into a crack that expands into a chasm, the beginning of the end. Overwhelmed by the potential union and emotionally struck down by her dance uniform being scolded for revealing the outline of her bra, Jem escapes the suffocating space of the church and cries on the stairs outside, where Owen is smoking. Owen’s first glimpse of Jem being a moment of vulnerability is smart, making him a predator from the start.
Laurel Parmet’s debut is delicate, often sitting in the moment, letting Scanlen’s performance shine in a tale that’s so grim. Lingering moments with Jem swaying to the music on an iPod or lying in the grass and staring at the sky create an intimate relationship with her, engulfing the film in a melancholy tone that is never sickening. The complexity of paralleling Starling’s intimate relationship with Owen and the mental health spiral of her father (Simpson) – fueled by grief and regret – is poignant. It's the deterioration of a family that longs to be pure for their god. Every woman in Parmet’s film is repressing pain caused by the men in their lives, with the desire that their sacrifice will amount to something greater than themselves, a false hope for the delusional and repressed.
Perhaps the most delusional is Owen’s wife, Misty (Burgum), who volunteers to oversee Jem’s dance choreography, picking it apart in a twisted way to prove her superiority and power in the situation by embarrassing Jem, breaking apart her confidence by picking apart the one thing Jem is good at and passionate about. It’s a tactic that works, influencing Jem to resort to teenage outbursts like keying her car. Her increased desperation ultimately leads to a devastating reveal that only harms Jem, but one that also leads her down a path to release.
The Starling Girl’s thoughtfulness and lingering optimism toward a story that is predictably sorrowful is a necessary balance. Parmet’s ability to repackage a story that oftentimes can feel exploitative and gritty through a more mature and compassionate lens is quite sincere – a challenging film that’s worth the effort.
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The Starling Girl, Laurel Parmet, Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Austin Abrams, Jimmi Simpson, Jessamine Burgum