The Starling Girl
Humiliated after being called out for her bra being visible underneath her dress during a dance worship at her Christian Fundamentalist church by the pastor’s wife (K.J. Baker), Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, 2019's "Little Women") is further dismayed by the news that the pastor’s younger son Ben (Austin Abrams, HBO's 'Euphoria') has officially asked her father for permission to court her. The pastor’s older son, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman, "Top Gun: Maverick"), has just returned to Kentucky from a mission in Puerto Rico and even though he’s married, sparks fly with “The Starling Girl.”
Laura's Review: B
Writer/director Laurel Parmet makes her feature debut with a coming of age tale that expounds upon the destructiveness of Christian Fundamentalist repression across genders, families and generations. Eliza Scanlen, with the help of cinematographer Brian Lannin (HBO's 'High Maintenance'), renders 17 year-old Jem’s blossoming sexuality luminous, her anguish in heartbreak and betrayal evaporating in freedom of expression in a Memphis barroom.
It is somewhat surprising to see the Holy Grace dance troupe perform in a Church, young women in clingy white knit ballerina dresses twirling and stretching before the congregation. It is, therefore, more shocking when Anne Taylor pulls Jem and her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt, "Nope") to fret over the outline of an undergarment – imagine the alternative!
On the car ride home, Heidi begins promoting Ben’s qualities to her clearly uninterested daughters, but her gossip about 28 year-old Owen not yet having a family leads Jem’s younger sister Becca (Claire Elizabeth Green) to remind Jem that she’d once said she would want to look like Owen if she were a boy. When Jem learns the following week that their dance troupe will be unable to continue as its teacher is withdrawing, she manufactures an accidental stop at Owen Taylor’s house to promote herself, Owen being in charge of Church projects. He is initially dismissive, but a palpable flirtation begins and he agrees to it.
Jem grows bolder and bolder finding ways to put herself into Owen’s path even as his socially awkward brother begins his courtship. Her age appropriate suitor engages in off-putting, uncompassionate anecdotes about a defecating chicken while his married brother acts like a teenager in love, eventually confessing a loveless, incompatible marriage just before crossing the line. At home, Jem’s begun to observe that her dad, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), a former C&W singer, has been hitting the bottle more and more frequently and his ‘in vino veritas’ comments reveal a subversive ally.
The lovers’ boldness eventually uncovers them and when Pastor Taylor (Kyle Secor) pays a visit to address Jem’s submission to Satan, while he admits his own son’s guilt, it is Jem who is called to confess before the congregation and it is Jem who is told she must go away to King’s Valley, clearly some awful type of conversion therapy retreat.
Scanlen’s Jem is both seductive and innocent, a quality seen in her dance which is both sensual and joyous. Parmet was clever to split her parental dynamic, Schmidt a straight arrow who suggests a woman brought up in the church, yet one in denial about her husband. News of a former bandmate’s suicide slips Simpson’s character into a downward spiral, one which he projects his conflicted soul through while subconsciously lighting a path for his daughter. Austin Abrams gives us a completely different, almost unrecognizable, character here from ‘Euphoria’s’ Ethan, exhibiting convincing range while Pullman straddles a line between predator and victim.
Parmet’s work is kin to another 2023 debut, “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” “The Starling Girl” adding complexity via religious patriarchy, her protagonist exhibiting more wisdom through experience than “Palm Trees’” 17 year-old despite her naïveté. Lannin’s camerawork provides a natural freshness, his lighting in nighttime scenes, from a peachy glow to harsher, dividing white, adding psychological depth to Jem’s shifting perspective. Ben Schneider’s music brings together both sides of Jem’s experience, what she hears in church and what she begins to hear in her dad’s old recordings, including ‘Ace Up My Sleeve,’ which in turn, influence her own dance selections.
Robin's Review: B
Bleecker Street releases "The Starling Girl" in NY and LA on 5/12/23, expanding to additional cities on 5/19/23.