Jem starling (Eliza Scanlen) has no understanding of the world outside of her insular Kentucky town. She comes from a family of fundamentalist Christians with staunch opinions on dress code, the internet, and secular media. Her life oscillates between her responsibilities at home and those at Holy Grace church as the new leader of the liturgical dance troupe — though even that relatively harmless pursuit becomes an apparent opportunity for sin as she comes of age. Jem’s mother (Wrenn Schmidt) is rigid and distant as if she sees the devil in her daughter. She’s there to channel Jem’s burgeoning womanhood into a courtship, which is more or less an arranged marriage. When Jem is selected by Ben Taylor (a brief but effective Austin Abrams), it feels like her life — which quite literally has not even begun — is already closing in around her.
In The Starling Girl, writer-director Laurel Parmet paints Jem’s myopic world not with broad strokes or generalizations but with an attention to detail that savors strongly of a lived experience. She was inspired to write The Starling Girl based on her own relationship with a much-older man and the shame that plagued her during and after. Scanlen translates that raw, unspoken pain into a tangible performance that almost aches to watch. She and Parmet waste no time introducing us to Jem’s desperation, anger and confusion. Like so many girls raised under the burden of purity culture, Jem has spent her whole life circling the drain of self-denial, pushing down any part of herself that might draw attention from God — even when she thinks she’s given it all for Him. She is undone by shame when a congregation member draws attention to her bra, barely visible beneath a modest t-shirt. Lying awake at night, she toys with the idea of touching herself before logging that impulse as a satanic temptation and turning over to sleep.
Jem struggles under the weight of her fundamentalist teaching: her love for God, her desire to please, and her need to honor her family are the only things holding her together — and, perhaps simultaneously, the very things driving her to the brink. Nothing can divert her from the endless cycle of disgrace and devotion. That is, until Ben’s older brother — the charming, unconventional, and unhappily married Owen (Lewis Pullman) — returns from a mission trip in Puerto Rico. With Owen reinstated as youth pastor at Holy Grace, it feels like a new splinter of the world has opened up at Jem’s feet, and just in the nick of time.
Owen, naturally, is not like the rest of the congregation at Holy Grace. His relationship with God is fluid and forgiving. He sees Him in all things: dance, desire, and even temptation. The hard and fast rules of the church all somehow bend to his will. And so, eventually, does Jem — despite the little matter of his marriage (however loveless it may be), her own looming courtship, or the laundry list of sins she entertains by seeking his attention.
Jem’s dynamic with Owen may be disproportionate, but the attraction is mutual. In Jem, Owen finds a kindred spirit, an individual slowly being stripped of all agency and self-determination by the institution that stripped him of the same. The trauma in him recognizes the trauma in her, and it only makes their connection more difficult to ignore. The Starling Girl is, just as advertised, a story about a religious teen’s affair with her youth pastor. There are shades of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Call Me By Your Name at play here, and some of the film’s strongest moments feel like a dramatization of Lana Del Rey’s greatest hits (that’s a compliment, honest). Familiar beats aside, it’d be a mistake to write The Starling Girl off as a contribution without anything new to say. It’s an incredibly specific sort of coming of age, one designed for the girls who’ve worked hard to reclaim their sexual agency, even if it means sacrificing it at the altar of an older man with no concern for their own pleasure.
As is the case with these “affair”-driven films, Jem and Owen are pretty much doomed (or damned, whichever you prefer) from the very beginning. Being with Owen opens Jem’s eyes to the joys of self-possession. But she is, eventually, also the possessed: Jem gives, but what is Owen giving in return? She is, as he desperately insists, the only person who sees him — but does he see her as anything more than a vessel to heal his inner wounds? Their romance can’t be sustained. The pendulum must eventually swing back; the “natural” order must be restored. But Jem has already had her fill of the forbidden fruit, and it’s opened her eyes to the world beyond her own.
Whether she and Owen can make it out together is not the question Parmet seems concerned with answering. In the world of the film, only Jem matters. Jem has to get free — but first, she has to survive. She has to reconcile every part of herself, the devotion and the desire, before they tear her up inside — and with Scanlen’s smoldering performance at the center of it all, it’s impossible not to root for that Starling girl.
The Starling Girl premiered on January 21, 2023, at the Sundance Film Festival. They are currently searching for distribution.