The Starling Girl 2023 Movie Review
One would think that, by now, coming-of-age films would have become a genre that’s been done to death — a dead horse whipped over and over again until there’s nothing left but sinew and bone. It’s a subgenre that fits under every umbrella in film, whether the protagonists are the so-called Chosen One or just a teenager struggling to survive high school. Admittedly, there’s very little room to create something new in the confines of a story about growing up, given the century-plus history of cinema, and the fact that, to pull out the old English major joke, we’ve been telling the same seven stories over and over since the beginning of time.
So, to put it mildly, creating a coming-of-age film that’s at all interesting — let alone revolutionary or life-changing — is a difficult task. Few people manage to tread old ground without slipping and falling, but luckily, one of those people is writer-director Laurel Parmet, whose debut film The Starling Girl premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Tugging on heartstrings few dare to even touch, the muted and delicate film tells the story of young Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a seventeen-year-old girl with an affinity for dance who cannot help but want something more out of her life in a conservative Christian community in Kentucky.
That “more” comes in the form of Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the church’s recently returned youth pastor who takes her under his wing in a way one might assume would be innocent and friendly, if only because of Pullman’s kind smile and his reputation for playing sweethearts. Unlike more traditional coming-of-age tales, The Starling Girl is devastating from the get-go as that relationship turns predatory, with Jem blinded by affections that smack of much more than simple godliness and proffered friendship.
Parmet quickly makes a name for herself as she makes an art out of subtlety, a necessary skill for a film with a premise as complex as The Starling Girl; one that could easily tread into ham-handed or emotionally manipulative territory if not executed correctly. I entered the story with fears that it would turn out like last year’s deeply misguided Sundance pick, Sharp Stick, given that many of the story beats are the same — a young, naive woman enters into an affair with an older, married man, turning her life and her understanding of the world upside-down and generally creating chaos in the process. Affair stories are often lurid and sensationalist, focused primarily on the innocent protagonist’s sexual awakening, which is normally the first thing that usually steers me away from them, among others.
But the awakening that Jem Starling experiences has little to do with sex, though her view of herself within the confines of her conservative community does warp once she begins to cavort with Owen. It’s that sense of self that Parmet and the film are more interested in rather than the lurid details — the way outside forces can damage and distort a young woman’s understanding of her own existence until she begins to crack and shatter like wet clay in a kiln. Jem’s inner turmoil, not only over her sexuality but over her place in the world, is fragile, and Parmet treats it as such, slowly peeling back layers rather than ripping them away like the world’s most painful Band-Aid.
The film does lope along at a rather languid pace because of that fragility, but while pieces drag here and there, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Scanlen whenever she’s on-screen. Her pain at being confined (both literally and emotionally) is electric, less powerhouse, and more fork-stuck-in-a-light-socket as she wails in private, disguised by the sound of a shower or the dead of night. The voltage is only amplified by the metaphorical jail cell her community keeps her in – one that demands that she be visible enough to “court” (read: marry, essentially by force) at the young age of seventeen, yet not visible enough to attract any sort of attention in expressing herself, or even in the accidental case of choosing the wrong bra to go under a white shirt.
It’s easy to see why Jem would give in to the attention of someone like Owen, especially the way Scanlan lights up once Jem’s invisibility cloak has been shucked into the grass alongside her underthings. Her emotions are multiplied tenfold by her circumstances, and the rose-colored glasses we’ve been sold by hindsight make you want to scream that she’s better than this, that she deserves more, despite the knowledge that, at seventeen, none of us knew how to see ourselves, let alone understand and fight for our own worth.
Similarly, Pullman proves once again that he’s capable of being a magnetic presence onscreen — something only Parmet’s really permitted him the space to do in recent years. Sure, he made a name for himself last year as the adorable, scene-stealing Bob Floyd in Top Gun: Maverick, but Starling Girl gives him the space to flex the muscles that have poked through in past roles, charm and consequence and conceited, self-centered actions all rolled into one. Owen wears honey-sweet words and a handful of jean shirts over what I’m not even sure he understands is a subtly predatory nature, his own self-interests outdoing any real love he might have for Jem – a love that oscillates and changes depending on how much it’s going to get him into trouble. You’re almost tempted to like him, before sense kicks in and you want to kick him and hide Jem away behind your skirts like the mother she should’ve had, as opposed to the ignorant, self-righteous one she ended up with, played to perfection by Nope’s Wrenn Schmidt.
So much is said in the space between words in The Starling Girl, and the quiet nature of the film reflects the silence into which Jem has been forced — a silence she escapes through the power of music, the very thing that opens the film. Parmet harnesses the unique kind of discomfort that comes with religious trauma, while simultaneously not belittling those who’ve experienced it beyond the screen. Rather, The Starling Girl is steeped with empathy, not just for Jem, but for every young woman, religious or not, who struggles to know herself and gives in to the desire to be seen, no matter the voyeur — just to feel alive, and like they matter.
Parmet sets herself up as a filmmaker to watch with her directorial debut, knowing what she has without overloading her audience to make her point. She possesses a maturity and grace that will, hopefully, take her far beyond what this film has already accomplished, and the intimacy of The Starling Girl is both intriguing and painful, a version of Call Me by Your Name for the working-class girls that hide scars under the clothing they’ve scraped pennies together to afford. Her vision is direct and sharp, both agonizingly painful and deeply cathartic as it implies, perhaps, that the Devil only exists where your mind and those around you choose to put him.