The Starling Girl review – Eliza Scanlen shines in transgressive coming of age drama | Sundance 2023

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The Starling Girl, the feature debut from writer-director Laurel Parmet, sets forth two difficult, easily muddled tasks. First, striking the correct tonal balance for a sexual relationship separated by age and authority – in this case, an intoxicating, transgressive romance between 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) and her abruptly handsome, 28-year-old youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman, son of actor Bill). And the second, depicting an insular religious community – a group of fundamentalist Christians in present-day Kentucky – with enough specificity and emotional acuity to bridge the gap with viewers who will find such a place opaque, unrelatable or possibly even unbelievable.

Parmet succeeds more on the former than the latter. The Starling Girl, anchored by a bristling performance from the always solid Scanlen, is at its best when it hews to the combustible suspense of a teenage girl glimpsing her own instincts – for honesty, for autonomy, and most threateningly for pleasure. It’s ultimately less a portrait of a toxic relationship – that’s not the tone of Owen and Jem’s connection here – than a familiar battle of faith and feelings, intuition versus indoctrination, the fine line between sin and sublime.

Glance by glance, Jem is invariably drawn to Owen against the backdrop of shame-ridden conservatism. The two first reconnect on a stairwell outside church – Jem in snotty tears after a fellow congregant chastises her visible bra outline; Owen, recently returned from a missionary stint in Puerto Rico, the subject of gossip over why he and his wife (Jessamine Burgum) don’t have children yet. This is Duggar-type Christian fundamentalism – long skirts and covered shoulders, no social associations outside church and no secular culture.

The honeyed Southern summer setting, lushly captured by cinematographer Brian Lannin, feels expansive in a way Jem’s social and emotional futures do not. By day, she escapes into dance practice and solo bike rides at dusk, the air thick with humidity and crickets (characters are dripping in sweat on multiple occasions, often coinciding with a melting of control). By night, she experiments with masturbation and curses her sinful hand. One afternoon, her strictly devout mother (Wrenn Schmidt) and father (Jimmi Simpson), a former secular musician and addict whose recovery is thornily bound up in faith, inform her that it’s time for her to court Owen’s painfully sheltered brother Ben (Euphoria’s Austin Abrams), and that’s that.

Jem balks and bargains – it is never boring to watch Scanlen, most notably of Sharp Objects and Little Women fame, play a character whose inner fire scrabbles with her learned politeness, and whose lust is basically indistinguishable from a crucial curiosity about the world. This is where the cast gets tricky. Scanlen, who is 24, has such a deft handle on reckless, almost devious innocence that she can still pull off a high-schooler, but barely. In another movie, she and Pullman, who is 29, could play uncomplicated lovers. Last year’s Sundance standout Palm Trees and Power Lines managed to balance both the magnetism and grossness of a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and 34-year-old man largely through the casting of actual teenager Lily McInerny, who looked believably her age – as in, more child than woman, shockingly young.

The Starling Girl manages to skirt the issue of credulity by framing the central relationship as less toxic than desperate. Pullman capably plays Owen as somewhat of a Peter Pan with a visibly fractured psyche. Her instincts are nascent and powerful; his have been so stunted by shame as to resemble that of a teenager. The 116-minute film plays, however intentionally, like a genuine if deeply flawed connection, one whose inappropriateness is outdone by the merciless expectations inflicted by their community. When he takes her virginity in the backseat of a car, in an expertly staged scene that focuses on her thrill and disappointment, he feels both achingly teenage and ominous. He cannot conceive of his pleasure; she will of course pay for it.

Parmet maintains a firm grip on this slippery relationship throughout its doomed course, less so on their world – if the rules are so strict and the gossip so thick here, how could these two plausibly get away with time together? A side plot involving her father’s descent into alcoholism provides motivation for Jem to distrust her rigid world even more, but culminates in unnecessarily high stakes. The final act’s redemption feels almost gratuitous in its depiction of her family and community’s emotional cruelty. The conclusion is, thankfully, appropriately understated; Scanlen can portray miles of emotional growth with a few short minutes. Films of this tricky variety often hinge on the central performance, and in her hands, it mostly works.

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