In the opening scene of The Starling Girl, 17-year-old Jem Starling, looks up at the sky and prays that people will see God through her and her actions. It’s a prayer of consecration and earnest desire to live her life in such a way that shows her devotion to her god. And that’s the central question at the heart of the film. Is living our lives truly and authentically a celebration of God’s creation or do we have to forfeit our lives in service to God’s other creatures?
Jem lives in a community that will seem eerily familiar to those of us who live in Utah. It’s a high-demand, fundamental religious community that allows for no other connections outside of the church. At 17 years old, she is on the precipice of “fulfilling her purpose” in life—i.e., getting married and having children. Modesty culture is heavily enforced. Public shaming happens regularly to keep people scared of stepping out of line. Music is controlled. Dance is monitored. Everything must be done with God and the church at the center. Any deviation is not tolerated and is excoriated as Satan’s control. Smoking and drinking are not allowed. Secularism is the greatest threat that could get between one’s self and God. Weighing heavily on the film is the idea that any action or thought that considers the well-being of one’s self is “selfish” and therefore cuts one off from God. The only way to be closer to God is to sacrifice any sense of self in service of others but mostly in service of their church.
It’s against this stifling backdrop of control and dehumanization that Jem struggles to serve the two masters of happiness, love and fulfillment as well as the church. No one asks her what she wants in life. No one cares about her as a person. She is only her role. Until she meets Owen Taylor, the pastor’s older son who has just returned with his wife from a Missionary trip to Puerto Rico. Owen has experience outside of their small Kentucky town. He has ideas about how to find God and who God is that challenge the existing narrative of control and shame. He sees Jem as a person when they talk. He asks questions about who she is and what she wants to do. He proposes the idea that living our lives as we want—doing what brings us joy—is the highest form of worship. He gives her an avenue for consciousness and awakening—mentally, sexually, and spiritually. Everything that burns between them challenges everything she knows about God and yet she’s never felt more alive and closer to God.
The Starling Girl hinges on that relationship and the dangers and freedom it brings. It’s a quiet, simple movie, grounded in restrained but incredible performances. Eliza Scanlen brings a fiery defiant light to Jem’s eyes, carrying the film in every scene. She’s a powerhouse of an actress and never once lets you forget the strength Jem carries inside her, regardless of how everything and everyone in her life is a threat to her happiness. Lewis Pullman portrays Owen and brings a quiet warmth and charm. The film doesn’t try to obscure the troubling power dynamics between the two or the fact that Jem is still a teenager while he’s in his late twenties. But the film doesn’t try to make a bold statement, either. It sets up the problematic and uneven social structures between men and women in this community to help us understand that even while rebelling against these confines, Owen and Jem still live within them.
Jimmi Simpson plays Jem’s father—a man struggling to live a religious life while haunted by the ghost of his former life of fulfillment, success and fame that he gave up for God. A choice of self-sacrifice that has left him broken, drinking and taking pills in not-so secret. Wrenn Schmidt plays Jem’s mother—a woman whose entire existence is threatened by the struggles of her husband and oldest daughter. She is willing to sacrifice those relationships to reassure and validate her place in her small, confined and limited community.
The Starling Girl is the feature directorial debut of writer/director Laurel Parmet. Parmet developed the script in the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program years back. Parmet’s work is sublime, understated and deeply affecting. She lets her camera hang on her actors and allow them to be in a scene, never rushing moments or lingering too long. The movie feels so real that its quiet, powerful moments are almost lost at times in the naturalistic flow of life.
The result is a coming-of-age story that is incredibly specific but grounded in a world we all understand and see everyday. And though it didn’t come into the festival with the same level of buzz other features had, The Starling Girl is one of the best films of the festival. A meticulously crafted, reserved film that reminds us of the importance and power of independent cinema. It is a moving, indelible and subtle film that shows us that the most radical, most defiant and most disruptive thing we can do to systems of control is to live our life authentically and honestly. The film gently asserts that if we are creations of a loving god, then he created us to be happy.
The Starling Girl premiered in the U.S. Dramatic competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
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