I was astounded at Eliza Scanlen’s (Sharp Objects, Old) performance as a teen named Jem Starling who’s growing up in a Christian fundamentalist community in Kentucky.
Her family is deep into the beliefs of the church, especially her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), who lords over the entire household, her three daughters, and her husband Paul, played by Jimmi Simpson (The Man Who Fell to Earth, The House of Cards), who may have thought a lot about her and this situation in the beginning, but whose falling out of love with it all as the story of Jem plays out. Their lives coalesce to a degree because to marry Heidi, he gave up the one thing he loved more than anything, his music.
This moving, sensational examination into the life of families who are radical extremists, giving up everything for the Lord, even if it must be their children, is profound and deals with the subject tenderly but earnestly. I can’t believe this is Laurel Parmet’s feature debut in both writing and directing but easy to surmise it won’t be her last. I don’t think she’ll be making shorts anymore.
Jem loves to dance. The youth pastor teaches her and the other teen girls the skills they need to show off their talents. After their latest show, her mother pushes Jem to speak with Ben Taylor, a boy she knows but doesn’t spend time with. Their parents believe that since they’re seventeen, it’s time that they start to think of life as a couple.
Ben likes talking about his friend Simon and is uninterested in Jem. She barely looks at Ben because she’s preoccupied with daydreaming about his older brother Owen played by Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick, Bad Times at the El Royale), who just returned from Puerto Pico.
Owen has taken over as the youth pastor, allowing Jem to run the dance troupe. Her mother isn’t sure if she’s dancing for God or vanity, already making up her mind that her daughter wants to dance in front of the congregation for self-glorification. The other girls in the troupe aren’t happy with the dance moves Jem has come up with, thinking the elders won’t like them either or the music she has chosen. What a bunch of fuddy-duddies, I say.
It isn’t long before the teen, who acts and looks innocent enough, is in a friendship with Owen, where they meet and flirt. He supports her dancing, and, for the first time in her life, someone tells her it’s okay to be herself. Nothing in her household has ever been allowed without first considering whether God would forgive you for your sins as if everything is evil.
The flirting between Owen and Jem finally turns into a kiss. Jem knows he’s married and asks Owen if he thinks she’s wicked for allowing the kiss to occur. He tells her she’s the farthest from amoral or depraved than anyone he has ever met.
The movie is a little slow at first, only in that it must show you from her expressions how this young girl struggles and copes with everything in her life pulling her in so many directions.
“The Starling Girl” is a must-see for Eliza Scanlen’s acting, writing and how the story ultimately ends. Blame befalls the girl, of course, never the male in any situation. Because of a young teenager’s decision, her family ends up disowning her. You have to see how this youngster shows everyone she isn’t a little girl anymore.
“The Starling Girl” will be a movie you discuss long after it’s over.
Bleecker Street will release THE STARLING GIRL on Friday, May 19th at the below theatre(s):
Camelview at Fashion Square
The Starling Girl
Written & Directed by: Laurel Parmet
Starring: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams, Jimmi Simpson
Run Time: 1h 56m
Distributed by: Bleeker Street
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