Growing up in the Midwest, I often saw my peers caught somewhere between devout, conservative Christianity and total freedom to make their own choices about religion. Friends would try their damnedest to pull me along with them to their Wednesday night youth worships—which terrified me, like any gathering of people, repeating the same things in unison should. Some kids weren’t allowed to go near anything Harry Potter-related, for fear of being pulled into the devil’s work. (A worry that has since taken on an ironic new meaning).
Others were allowed to run wild, choosing whether or not they accompanied their parents to church every Sunday. Several only went for the free freshly baked goods at the post-service reception. They were more concerned with spending their weekends trying to live out the halcyon days of being a teenager before real life had to take hold.
Director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature, The Starling Girl (in theaters May 12), finds its titular character in a similar predicament. Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) has been raised in a fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky, and has been content living under its rigid rules. After all, its ways are all that she’s ever known: long skirts that cover the ankle to maintain feminine modesty; a refusal of any self-interest, for fear of welcoming in the grip of Satan; and an expectation to commit to courtship early in life, to worry less about dating and more about how to remain a devout servant of God.
Jem’s freest moments are when she’s in motion, lost in a routine for her church’s dance troupe. It’s there where Jem learns to listen to her body and mind in tandem, until those whispers turn into shouts when the church’s enigmatic youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman), returns from a mission trip. Faith, and the breathless desire for teenage rebellion, pull Jem in opposite directions at the most pivotal point of her adolescence. And it's in that shadowy middle space where The Starling Girl excavates a startlingly original coming-of-age story, a study of the suppression of desire that’s served alongside burgeoning womanhood, regardless of creed.
When Jem’s dance troupe opens the film with a carefully choreographed performance, it’s hard to see a single flaw in her step. That is, until a member of that congregation points out that Jem’s dress is faintly transparent, an apparently fatal fault that could lead to the distraction of fellow congregants, and Jem vulnerable to the devil’s hand. This admonishment is brutally mortifying for both Jem and the viewer. Feeling the flush of her cheeks, Jem steps outside for some air, where she encounters Owen, still freshly tanned from his missionary work in Puerto Rico.
Owen sits on the steps behind her, smoking a cigarette that he asks Jem to keep a secret from his wife, Misty (Jessamine Burgum). His illicit tobacco is only the first private moment that he and Jem will come to share. Like the best manipulators, Owen turns their mutual secret into the genesis of a deeper, more complicated relationship. His introduction back into the church’s youth group after his big trip proves hypnotic for Jem. To her sheltered mindset, Owen seems downright cosmopolitan, an alluring symbol of the secular world that she’s spent her life ignoring, lest she is drawn away from God’s light.
The slow evolution of the relationship between Jem and Owen is largely by the book. The two become closer by maneuvering their intimate private meetings, away from watchful eyes. We can see how Jem uses Owen as her escape from an inflexible mother and fading father, who similarly questions the rigor of his religion when he loses hold of his sobriety. Each time Owen and Jem meet under the cover of night, Jem is burning the hems of her skirts on the forewarned flames of hell, and delighting in her rebellion a little more each time.
But for her, the allure of defiance takes a back seat to first love. Jem has barely experienced real resistance. She grew up in an existence where every simple, small mistake was an act of legitimate sin. Jem’s measure of good and bad is skewed, leaving her trapped in her own confusion. Scanlen is mesmerizing as she works this out through her character’s expressions. Jem is, at once, determined and restrained, knowing that if she’s caught, she’s risking not only the wrath of her parents, but that of God, as well. Should she play her cards wrong, Jem believes that her eternal soul could be compromised. Scanlen wears the visible glow of new love under a mask of fear and anxiety.
Occasionally, Parmet’s script lets Scanlen down. The Starling Girl is often too caught up in trying to say so much at once that it fails to focus on some of its most evocative character details, rushing to close a couple of minor plot threads near its end. Jem’s relationship with her father, particularly, doesn’t feels fully shaded, leaving the back half of the film less impactful than it could be. However, Parmet’s concentration on Jem is such a powerful portrayal of the complicated, boiling emotion of adolescence, that many viewers won’t find this to be a hindrance.
Despite a dense thematic framework, The Starling Girl avoids dunking itself in explosive melodrama that other directors might favor when telling a story in a fundamentalist setting. The film earns its fiery moments. It escapes the trap of becoming overly bombastic by always keeping the center on Scanlen, who augments Jem’s swirling pattern of emotions to fit the space of the world around her, that had been kept out of sight until Owen’s return shook her system of beliefs. It may not hit all of its marks with precision, but I get the sense that’s where Parmet would like the film to land: One foot in the dark, and another in the light, with Jem, still caught somewhere in the dance between them.
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