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“The Starling Girl”

For many, especially in the South, Christianity isn’t just a religion; it’s a way of life. In these communities, the Bible is interpreted literally, with rigid gender roles and customs that favor purity over all else. Modesty is taught to young girls early, with emphasis on their bodies being covered at all times. Long skirts, sweaters even when it’s hot, long hair, no make-up, a demure demeanor. For girls in these communities, life is about obeying their parents until the time comes for authority to hand power over to their husbands. But in the center of it all is the church: an all-knowing, all-seeing entity that must be feared and respected, with the penalty of being turned away at the gates of Heaven. Life on Earth is about the fate of one’s immortal soul. To want anything else is to be overtaken by the grip of Satan.

This is a problem for The Starling Girl‘s Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), an energetic 17-year-old girl who can’t help but love attention wherever she can get it. But in her small evangelical community in Kentucky, she has more pressing responsibilities. She’s the oldest daughter in a large family, which means she is effectively a second mother, tending to the children as well as the household. Her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), depends on Jem to be the family’s rock in the place of her father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), whose drinking problem isolates him from everyone else. Like Jem, Paul is silently yearning for something more, unhappy with the smallness of his existence. Before settling down, he was a country singer, playing with a band called The Deadbeats. Jem has a love for music too — she dances in the church’s worship dance troupe.

The Starling Girl opens on Jem performing with the troupe, her main source of physical joy. But even as she tries to free her body with movement, the eyes of the church are passing judgment. Right after the performance, Jem is shamed by an older woman in the church for her bra being visible under her shirt. Embarrassed, she immediately retreats to a private place to cry. The film is full of moments like this — an older woman warning Jem about her body and how easily it can become corrupted. One moment she’s being shamed for her body, the next her mother is pressuring her to think about marriage and bearing children. Writer and director Laurel Parmet understands the contradiction of demanding maturity while demonizing any evidence of its occurrence.

This film, much like Karen Maine’s underrated debut from a few years ago, Yes God Yes, grapples with the conflict Christian girls feel when acknowledging their own sexuality. While other girls explore sex and romance without the fear of fiery damnation, Maine and Parmet’s heroines are made to feel like pleasure is inherently sinful. But while Yes God Yes’ focus is masturbation, The Starling Girl is a bit more abstract. Parmet is more concerned with how shame affects the way a body moves. Scanlen portrays Jem as a girl at war with herself, trying to break free of the constraints of shame — not just when she’s alone, but in public as well. There’s a restlessness to Jem, who wants to be noticed in ways she’s told are ungodly. Her dance moves have added flourishes, small expressions of her burgeoning sexuality. The other girls notice, and quietly resent her for it. Even her mother seems to think Jem likes herself a little too much. Takes too much pleasure in her youthful beauty. Craves too much independence.

But Jem wants love, passion and heat. She wants to move her body freely, through dance and through life. Her youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman), seems to understand that. He also feels out of place in their buttoned-up little town. As they begin meeting in secret, Jem is the center of attention for the first time in her life. For her, it doesn’t matter that he’s married; all that matters is that he seems to understand her. In some ways, Jem’s time with Owen mirrors the small, private moments she shares with her father. Owen and Paul are both soft-spoken men with long hair and sad eyes, quietly yearning for more than their small town can give them. They, too, feel oppressed by their strict community, but there’s a bitter edge to their dissatisfaction, with undertones of misogyny that Jem is still too young to understand. The darkness of Owen’s desire for Jem is revealed slowly throughout the film, building to an explosive climax.

Pullman plays Owen as a man who knows he’s a predator, using Jem as an outlet for his frustration and feelings of powerlessness. Like many older men who take advantage of young girls, he sees himself as a sort of romantic hero who is simply a victim of circumstance. More insidiously, he uses God to convince Jem that what they’re doing is alright. But Parmet’s empathetic filmmaking allows us to understand what her heroine sees in this troubled older man. Perhaps Jem believes she can be for Owen what her mother can’t be for her father — encouraging of his creativity, nurturing of his desire for adventure. These are naive notions, but when the only option for her is a life of demure servitude, it makes all the sense in the world to want something different.

With The Starling Girl, 2018’s Sharp Objects and 2019’s Babyteeth, Scanlen has proven herself deft at portraying strange and fascinating young women. There’s quiet power in Jem’s eyes — on some level she knows her potential, even as adults try to shame her into thinking otherwise. One of the smartest things about Parmet’s film is the way it portrays internalized misogyny in her female characters. The Starling Girl is a complex, often disturbing portrait of the way women have been pressured to shrink themselves and pass on that shame to their daughters. Somewhere inside them they know it breeds unhappiness, but for them it’s a small price to pay for admittance into the kingdom of Heaven. While the world around them is changing, these women are convinced the old ways are best. But as Jem’s journey shows us, repression and shame always lead to rebellion.