That sugarcoat smile is just a thin cover for the near-constant shaming and judgment suffocating Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) as a 17-year-old girl growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky. Laurel Parmet’s brilliant coming-of-age drama “The Starling Girl” captures the vulnerable teen at the moment she’s finding herself, finding love (or is that lust she’s heard so much about?), and figuring out what she wants out of life. It’s complex in the way that faith, community, and family can get complicated. Yet, the film feels nuanced in the way it portrays her internal war between her desires and beliefs, the way she seeks companionship in a congregation that demands punishment for wayward thoughts and sins both intended and committed.
Written and directed by Parmet, “The Starling Girl” finds Jem in a difficult moment in her life. Her dad (Jimmi Simpson) is struggling with a depressive episode after the death of a former bandmate from his secular days, and her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) wants her to avoid talking about it and pretend everything is fine with their family. Jem is underwhelmed by the start of her courtship with Ben (Austin Abrams), but she begins to fixate on his older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), who just got back from missionary work in Puerto Rico with his wife Misty (Jessamine Burgum). As the pastor’s son, Owen is tasked with looking over the youth programs, and Jem finds many excuses to talk with him. Soon, the attraction feels mutual, but is this God’s will or something else?
“The Starling Girl” lives and breathes through Scanlen’s stellar performance. She embodies the teenage frustration over being told what to do all the time, the immaturity of acting out in anger, and the naivety to be groomed by her youth pastor. It’s a seduction that doesn’t feel obvious at first, but soon, she’s seeking his attention and affection because he makes her feel understood and because he’s the only one who talks with her openly and candidly. Scanlen throws herself into her character’s fall from grace, making it easy to see and feel why Jem is so swept up by those powerful first waves of romance, asking herself if it’s possible to love too much in her prayers. She fantasizes about kissing in the shower, ironically, while wearing a purity ring (a symbol of commitment to save your virginity for marriage) on her wedding ring finger. Trancelike, Scanlen’s eyes fill with love whenever she looks at Pullman, and when things go wrong, her character’s hurt is written throughout her body, from tear-stained cheeks to curling up in bed with her thumb in her mouth, reverting to a childish state.