Eliza Scanlen Shines in This Deeply Felt Coming-Of-Age Drama [Sundance]

Feb 2, 2023

Richard Pryor used to do a bit on the differences between Black and white churches – one that was often revised and revisited by his many imitators in the decades that followed. But one thing he got particularly right, beyond the lameness of the hymns and the restrained quality of the ministers, is the eerie quiet of white churches, the way that the fires of hell and the sins of man can be described in tones barely more threatening than a hot dish recipe. Laurel Parmet’s “The Starling Girl” is set in and around such a church, a tightly-knit Christian fundamentalist community, and it reflects that unnerving modesty. This is a movie that barely speaks above a whisper, even when its characters are howling in pain inside.
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It begins, of course, with a prayer. “I hope to glorify you with all I do,” vows 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) with the fierce conviction of unquestioning youth. “Let it not be me that they see; let it be you.” Everything in Jem’s life, and thus everything in the film about her, is seen and felt through the prism of this church and its community: church service, Bible study, Wednesday night church, Christian music in the car, missionary trips, and youth group. Everything and of the world outside the church is seen with suspicion (“That’s why you gotta be careful with technology – it’s the easiest way for Satan to reach you”), and if the church is teaching a gospel of not only the scriptures but patriarchy and authoritarianism, well, that keeps everyone close. 
Jem buys into all of it. She does her “home duties,” she takes care of her young siblings, and she is so dedicated to the church dance troupe that when their coach steps away, she volunteers to step up. It’s not easy; the girls in the troupe second-guess her music choice (“Real intense drums. The elders won’t like it”), and the fully-choreographed routine is later “corrected” so it’s not “too individual-focused.” Her reactions are so stifled, so discouraged, and even subjected to punishment that such slights acquire an extra, pointed intensity; she may be a teen girl of faith, but she is a teen girl nevertheless, and as such, she is filled with big, powerful emotions. Many of them are rooted in her little crush on Owen, the youth pastor (Lewis Pullman), and the way that mutual attraction, inevitable but loaded, finally comes to a head is bracingly real and believable.
But it’s a sin, and not just because of how quickly they give in to the pleasures of the flesh; Owen is several years older and married and the son of the church’s main pastor (a chillingly affable Kyle Secor). On top of all that, Jem’s father (Jimmi Simpson) and said pastor have put the wheels into motion for what amounts to an arranged marriage between Jem and the pastor’s younger son, Ben (Austin Abrams) – a painful period of “courtship,” in which Jem is expected to get to know, and eventually love (or, at least, serve) this painfully shy, painfully dull young man.
So Jem and Owen’s forbidden assignations are loaded with a hungry intensity, fed into by their next-level fear and desire. They live for their late-night hook-ups, for the stolen, knowing smiles they exchange in mixed company, and as they need each other more, they take bigger chances. You can probably put together what happens from here, and sometimes you’re right – but even when you are, Parmet executes these moments with a force that can feel like a punch in the gut. And she also uses the doomed inevitability of the narrative to subvert expectations in ways that are, ultimately, rather stunning. 
Scanlen, at 24, must be getting a little tired of playing wounded teens, but she plays them so well – as in “Babyteeth” and “Little Women,” she seems utterly incapable of a false note. Pullman is quite good at playing the multiple, often contradictory levels of Owen; you see why she likes him and why he shouldn’t know better. And Simpson, capable of some of the broadest comic acting imaginable, is excellent in the very serious role of a haunted ghost of a man, clinging to this new notion of his better, “saved” self with all the strength he can muster (which is to say, not much).
Watching “The Starling Girl” come to its delicate, almost indescribably moving conclusion, I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of his favorite film of 2002, “Monster’s Ball” – specifically, of its similarly spellbinding closing scenes. “I was thinking about her,” he wrote, of Halle Berry’s Leticia, “ as deeply and urgently as about any movie character I can remember.” Scanlen’s work here is just as good, just as steeped in the feeling of a real-life being lived right in front of you. At an earlier point, she lets out a guttural moan in response to her mother, a short, quick, but undeniably affecting howl of pain and anger, of her whole world feeling like it’s coming to an end. That’s not a moment about being an evangelical or even being a teenager. It’s about being a human being. [A]
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