Laurel Parmet’s feature debut The Starling Girl is a pleasant surprise. Parmet explores fundamentalist ideas of Christian families and how these relate to sexuality, love, freedom, and identity, all through a woman’s perspective, although most messages cut across genders. Moreover, Parmet’s film is accessible regardless of one’s beliefs. The Starling Girl addresses the impact of religion on young women’s lives, particularly tackling how sexuality, love, freedom, and personal identity relate to fundamentalist pedagogy.
Some of the extreme behaviour in the film may shock viewers, but the events within The Starling Girl offer an unsettling reminder of how much women were – and still are in different ways – taught and forced to hide their desires, virtues, or feelings that fall outside the biblical norm. At its core, Parmet’s film delivers a coming-of-age story where the obstacles are essentially related to the self-discovery arc of the protagonist, Jem (Eliza Scanlen).
The Starling Girl doesn’t avoid the narrative barriers of this type of story – predictability and repetitiveness are almost inescapable as the film explores traditions and routines – but Parmet brilliantly executes her vision of the central themes. Jem’s arc is deepened in such a manner that it’s possible to understand her intentions and emotions through camera movements or small visual details. The gradually affectionate relationship with Owen (Lewis Pullman), a young pastor who encourages Jem to free herself from the ideological shackles passed down by her parents, is equally treated with admirable care.
Although Parmet doesn’t venture into the sensitive debate about older people’s relationships with minors, there’s tremendous respect for the subject, and at no point does the filmmaker lose control of the situation. The Starling Girl depicts the overwhelming urge to find something that makes us feel alive and human, which may lead us to interpret feelings irrationally and make impulsive decisions that are ultimately shortcuts to what we truly desire: freedom to be ourselves.
However, a secondary storyline features Jem’s father Paul (Jimmi Simpson) deserves more screen time. The Starling Girl focuses on the protagonist, but there are several points in common in Jem’s journey and in the life that Paul once lived. Other aspects of the film explore Paul’s past, his refuge in alcohol, and how he let himself be influenced by the same fundamentalist teachings, leaving his humanity behind. Paul is, in many ways, a walking cautionary tale for Jem who, deep down, knows where she might end up if she follows the same path.
Strong performances from the cast, meanwhile, elevate the film. Scanlen had already showed some of her incredible potential in Little Women and The Devil All the Time, but she offers her best performance yet in The Starling Girl. She’s accompanied by a charming Pullman – unrecognizable from Top Gun: Maverick – and by parents who play their roles phenomenally, Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt. If the young Scanlen continues to deliver these stellar turns, it’s only a matter of time before she starts getting nominations after nominations, beginning with her work in this empowering, insightful story.