Growing up is never pretty. Ill-informed decisions lead to mistakes which lead to consequences. Being raised in a fundamentalist Christian community, however, can make those mistakes feel like certain damnation. What is wrong can be twisted to align with what those in power want to believe happened. Being the victim of abuse becomes sin, which can be forgiven if prayed over. In Laurel Parmet’s uncomfortable The Starling Girl, coming of age is breaking away from the restraints of our upbringing and learning to become our own person, despite the pain it can bring us.
In a close-knit religious community, Jem (Eliza Scanlen) is the well-rounded eldest sibling of the Starling family. She likes to sing in church and participates in the dance troupe. At 17, it is time for her to start looking for a husband. When the pastor’s son, Ben Taylor (Austin Abrams), chooses to court her, it appears her life has been made up for her.
Jem’s budding sexuality — which she perceives as a sin — points to a growing rebellious nature inside of her, so when she connects with Ben’s much more handsome, much older brother, the 28-year-old Owen (Lewis Pullman), infatuation blossoms. The flirtation eventually leads to a secret affair, throwing Jem’s life into chaos as she attempts to keep hidden what she is told is God’s chosen path for her.
Through the warm light of the South and with the buzzing of cicadas filling the air, Jem’s romance plays out onscreen as any other coming-of-age romance would: with all the passion, naivete, and emotions that come with first love. Except her partner is ten years her senior and should know better than to pursue her. This effect is what makes The Starling Girl so poignant: Jem’s point of view is the authority of the film, so every decision she makes is one we can, at least, understand, despite it being misguided. As an outsider, the audience can also see what Jem doesn’t: an older man in a position of power taking advantage of a minor. These contrasting ideas make the film a difficult watch, but its perspective offers a deeper insight into the mind of its main character and the way her community — her religion — has failed her.
In The Starling Girl, religion and manipulation are married as one. Every question is answered with a Bible verse or a prayer. “We prayed on it” is a phrase Jem hears often; it’s used to force her into something she doesn’t agree with. “God’s plan” is the excuse given to her whenever she questions something that is wrong. It isn’t just Owen who throws Bible talk at her as justification, but her loved ones, too. Most of the time, this is done to keep Jem in order — to keep her from straying away from the strict rules of her community. On the worst occasions, however, these words are twisted to blame her instead of the adults around her. What’s more, this is always done to service the men in her life, who hold the power in her community. Pastor Taylor (Kyle Secor) is at its center: his words are practically the voice of God — the voice of reason. Everything in Jem’s life relates back to the men in it: pleasing Pastor Taylor, courting Ben — which she did not choose to do — and giving Owen what he wants.
The film’s juxtaposition of power and immaturity investigates how easily certain institutions abuse their influence. Jem’s innocence leads her into an abusive situation at the hands of someone much more mature than her. Her parents and community think her too young to make certain decisions, yet old enough to marry. The people who should be caring for her well-being — people who have significantly more life experience than her — are, in the end, the ones who fail her. Jem must grow up on her own, amongst a group of people who should be helping her, not blaming her. However, in doing so, Jem finds her own kind of freedom from the restrictive upbringing she has suffered under.
Parmet directs a gripping story of power and manipulation, one seen — though not understood — through the eyes of a teenager. Scanlen’s performance as Jem is electrifying, taking us into her character’s mind to see through the eyes of an adolescent. We feel her desires while knowing they are misguided, and this empathy we feel for her creates a significant impact. Disturbing at its darkest parts and euphoric by its ending, The Starling Girl crafts a provoking narrative around institutions that are meant to protect us, but that so often end up failing us.