The Starling Girl Review
The Australian actress Eliza Scanlan has been a fine performer for several years, often playing characters with a creepy edge. She played the freaky younger sister in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects and did even stronger work as a young woman with cancer in 2019’s Babyteeth. After playing the youngest March sister in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women later that year, she was in M. Night Shyamalan’s Old back in 2021.
In The Starling Girl, from debuting director Laurel Parmet, she steps into a lead role, in the extremely unsettling story of a young woman in a conservative Christian community who fall into a scandalous affair with her married youth pastor.
A Sundance debut earlier this year that opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles before expanding in the coming weeks, The Starling Girl is an extraordinarily unnerving movie, but Scanlan successfully drives it.
Scanlan plays Jem Starling, a 17-year-old who lives in a Christian community in Kentucky (Scanlan, for the age gap-minded among you, is actually 24.) She’s in the church dance ensemble but is repeatedly warned about dancing too sexy for that environment and having her bra visible. In the meantime, her parents are trying to push her into traditional courting rituals.
Living with her mother (Wrenn Schmidt), her alcoholic, failed musician dad (Jimmi Simpson), and many siblings, in a rather constrictive environment. She soon has an affair with her married, 28-year-old youth pastor (Lewis Pullman, from Top Gun Maverick).
Parmet, the director, has said in interviews that while she did have a relationship with an older man at a young age, she did not grow up in anything like the community depicted in the film. Still, the film appears to get that environment right.
The Starling Girl, like director Jamie Dack’s recent Palm Trees and Power Lines, tells a realistic story about what grooming really looks like and also resembles a standard romance at times. Both of those films also avoid coming across as simplistic message movies, or like after-school specials.
The film also resembles a much darker companion piece to the recent Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, although thankfully for Margaret, she wasn’t nearly as shamed about her emerging womanhood- and the whole part about the parents raised with conflicting religious traditions isn’t really in play either.
Both films, though, take religious belief seriously, and The Starling Girl is not, at its heart, made as a brief against Christian religious fundamentalism. What it is is a fair-minded film and a fine showcase for Eliza Scanlen.