The Starling Girl
Well-acted but overly familiar, this drama casts a baleful eye at the story of a fundamentalist Christian teen faced with temptation in her close-knit Kentucky community.
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I was raised in the faith but wandered away from it as a young adult. Still, countless church services, Sunday school, Confirmation, bible readings and the lot enable me to say I’m a lot closer to Christian thought than most of the people making movies.
Over the last 30 years a large and viable faith-based film industry has grown, though it basically operates separately from mainstream movies, even indies. When ‘regular’ pictures delve into stories about people of faith, especially fundamentalist Christians, it often feels like outsiders viewing their subject through the glass of a zoological exhibit.
They’re usually cautionary tales about gay conversion camps or stories about how women are subjugated — the dark side of Christianity. These movies are made to reassure those who created them and those who watch them that they’re on the right side of a huge, ongoing morality play.
“The Starling Girl” is a typical example of this. It’s a well-acted but overly familiar drama from writer/director Laurel Parment, her first feature film behind the camera, about a 17-year-old teen who gives into temptation and has an affair with an older church youth director. It’s fictional but Parment says it was influenced by some of her own youthful experiences.
Eliza Scanlen plays Jem Starling, a good and observant girl on the cusp of womanhood. She lives with her parents (Wrenn Schmidt and Jimmi Simpson) and several younger siblings in the hills of Kentucky — the sort of place where people are geographically spread out but knitted together by their church.
It was shot in the Louisville area, and the lovely vistas and back roads (shot well by cinematographer Brian Lannin) remind me how I always smile when traveling through the Bluegrass State.
Jem dances in the worship troupe, made up of other teen girls who perform in flowing white dresses with moves that are never too focused on one person. Hers is an overtly patriarchal society where she’s already being pushed to “court,” aka be pledged to a boy for marriage. Her parents are pleased that their minister (Kyle Secor) has put forth his own younger son, Ben (Austin Abrams), as a fitting suitor.
Jem’s father used to have another, secular life very different from this one before he was “saved” — she learns he even sang in a country band. His old troubles with drink start to resurface and he increasingly becomes morose and checked out. Her mom lives more in the vein of thought that you need to just smack Satan out of your children.
Jem is intrigued by Ben’s older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), who’s maybe about 25 and recently returned from a long mission trip to Puerto Rico, where he helped the locals with farming. He’s married to Misty (Jessamine Burgum) but they don’t really seem to get along, and the elders are already starting to cluck about them not having any babies yet.
As it’s presented in the movie, Jem is unquestionably the aggressor in pursuing a relationship. She finds reasons to always show up wherever Owen is and make moony eyes at him. When their adult dance troupe leader leaves, she gets permission from Owen to take over herself — with the proviso the routines remain chaste and dedicated to God.
She’s not a bad kid. Jem is just a normal teen driven to self-exploration and who has hormones pumping like crazy. Owen doesn’t seem as rigid about his beliefs as the other men — he sneaks cigarettes, for instance — and is well put together to boot.
Soon enough Owen gives into temptation, as we knew he would, and we immediately feel an intense enmity for him. We learn he’s a deeply unhappy person who increasingly sees Jem as his way out of the life that’s been drawn for him by others. But he’s the adult in this situation and should know better.
From here on, we know everything that’s going to happen in the movie — their secret will be discovered, first on a smaller scale and then by everyone, there will be intense pressure to reform their wicked ways or be cast out, etc. Jem is threatened with being sent to King’s Valley, a vague facility for religious retraining that is regarded by the youngsters as a prison for those who’ve strayed.
I found it interesting in the movie how people talk about “praying on it” to describe wrestling with a decision. It’s meant to be an expression of deeply held faith, but the way it’s used, especially by adults, is a trump card to get their way because God has instructed them the right path to take.
When Jem suggests she also prayed on something and came to a different conclusion, her mother is so taken aback she about spits up one of the apostles.
(I’m reminded of an acquaintance, a former clergyman, who owned some rental properties. A woman had not met her rent and when reminded about it, she told him she had prayed on it and God told her not to pay. He responded that he had also prayed on it and “God told me to evict you.” Somehow her God changed his mind.)
It’s a solid performance by Scanlen, who you may remember as the teen who got pregnant in “Old.” She’s got a very fresh, wholesome look with rosy cheeks and scarlet curls — her Jem is practically a cherub sprung forth from a biblical painting.
Scanlen plays her as someone with equal parts saint and sinner, not a young woman to be judged but simply accepted for the emotions and attitudes she has, whether you believe they were put there by the big guy above or whispered in her ear by the dark fellow below.
I’ve seen dozens of movies like “The Starling Girl” — the story of a young person who feels like they don’t belong in the community they grew up in is a pretty universal theme in storytelling. It’s a good thing to question our roots, but movies like this feel less like exploration from within than condemnation from without.
They don’t know these people well enough to cast that stone.