‘The Starling Girl’ Review: Eliza Scanlen Questions Her Faith

From “Saved!” to “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” Sundance films have a tendency to color fundamentalist Christians as extreme, cult-like zealots, hellbent on brainwashing the subsequent era. While such portrayals can actually be cathartic for these scarred by conservative upbringings, it’s a refreshing change to see this milieu handled with the extent of nuance that Laurel Parmet brings to “The Starling Girl.”

Set in a small Kentucky city the place morality is strictly enforced, Parmet’s promising, evenhanded debut focuses on a spiritual teen (“Little Women” star Eliza Scanlen) who’s by no means had motive to query her religion, till a crush on her good-looking youth pastor (Lewis Pullman) awakens her sexuality and scandalizes the group. For the adults on this repressive rural enclave, organized faith appears to supply the self-discipline and construction they search. But for 17-year-old Jem Starling, their values are beginning really feel like a straitjacket.

Jem dutifully honors her father (Jimmi Simpson) and mom (Wrenn Schmidt), however her mother and father are pressuring her to courtroom a pimple-faced fellow parishioner named Ben (Austin Abrams) — seemingly the final individual she’d need as a husband. But younger ladies like Jem don’t get a lot of a say within the patriarchal Christian society during which they’re raised.

In an early scene, Ben’s mom approaches Jem after the dance efficiency she’s given in church and expresses her concern. Jem’s brassiere was seen by her shirt, she says, and such issues pose an inappropriate distraction for the lads throughout worship. Suddenly self-conscious, Jem seems to shrink into herself, like Eve within the Garden of Eden, discovering the disgrace of her personal physique. But this second doubles as a reminder of Jem’s newfound energy, which she places to the take a look at when Ben’s older brother Owen (Pullman) returns from a mission journey.

The script doesn’t explicitly state what Jem sees in Owen, although it’s not arduous to guess: Long-haired and good-looking, he’s a little bit of a insurgent, but in addition religious — traits he shares with Jem’s father, who was a member of a Christian rock band throughout his wilder days. Owen has simply come again from Puerto Rico, which makes him comparatively worldly in her eyes, an emblem of the probabilities past this “Handmaid’s Tale” group of do-it-yourself clothes and honor-thy-husband dynamics. Jem imagines the 2 of them operating off collectively, and begins in search of methods to get his consideration.

“The Starling Girl” is rigorously real looking, with out fantasies or flashbacks, however on one level, there may be little doubt: After dance follow one afternoon, she deflates the tire on her bicycle so Owen can be obliged to present her a journey. It’s not lengthy earlier than they’re making out and extra. Owen is married with a pregnant spouse, however he finds Jem irresistible. Another director might need emphasised the erotic dimension of this forbidden attraction between a younger churchgoer and her spiritual teacher, between a minor and her ostensibly extra mature old flame, à la “The Thorn Birds” or “Call Me by Your Name,” however Parmet strikes a extra nuanced tone.

Seeking identification over judgment, the movie invitations audiences to look at how transgressive it feels to find the very factor that younger ladies are admonished to guard — their sexuality — can appear so intoxicatingly “right” when skilled for the primary time. Jem is simply too naive to acknowledge all of the methods during which her connection to Owen isn’t wholesome or sustainable. But the affair breaks the spell of Jem’s upbringing, difficult the assumptions of her obedient childhood and liberating her from a type of brainwashing.

Still, Parmet is beneficiant sufficient to acknowledge that whereas not the proper match for Jem, this ultra-conservative system may very well be the proper reply for others — adults who want that type of self-discipline of their lives, maybe. It’s the youngsters who are suffering. Consider the younger man roughly Jem’s age who was despatched away to King’s Valley, a disciplinary camp for many who stray from the church’s teachings — the identical place the place it’s advised that Jem should go after her scandalous conduct is found. It’s both that or discover a strategy to skip city and begin over someplace else. As it occurs, that’s how practically all small-town coming-of-age indie films conclude: by getting out of Dodge. Life isn’t robotically higher within the massive metropolis, however no less than there’s potential.

Parmet finds a poetic strategy to painting Jem’s liberation, however extra necessary is the lead-up: the bumpy course of by which she comes to appreciate she desires extra from life than the restrictive existence she’s identified until now. Jem’s involvement within the church dance troupe exhibits what little creativity she’s allowed to precise, which the adults round her, together with Owen’s spouse, Misty (Jessamine Burgum), fastidiously monitor and management. Whereas they reprimand her for exhibiting individualism — or “pride,” in church-speak — audiences yearn to see this lady dance. Sure, Jem’s surname could also be barely on the nostril, however in the long run, there may be little question this younger Starling must ditch her flock and fly the nest.

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