Within the first few minutes of her remarkable directorial debut, “The Starling Girl,” writer-director Laurel Parmet skillfully lays out the impossible paradox that is evangelical Christian purity culture. Flushed and happy after joyfully performing a lyrical worship dance in front of the congregation, 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, “Little Women”) has powdered sugar wiped from her mouth by her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt, “Nope”) so that she can be presented to the pastor’s son (Austin Abrams, “Do Revenge”) for potential courtship, right before another women pulls Jem aside to scold her for the visibility of her bra underneath her white dress.
It’s a brilliant sequence that immediately demonstrates the prison panopticon of expectations in which young Jem is trapped — being pushed by her parents into what is essentially an arranged marriage while being shamed and scorned for her body’s visibility. Jem’s sexuality is not her own, and it might never be within this closed patriarchal Christian community.
“The Starling Girl” is Parmet’s exploration of the repercussions of this repression, imagining the ways in which a family this tightly wound might begin to unravel, and how a starling finds the only way to fly. The first twist is Owen (Lewis Pullman), the charismatic, moody youth pastor who has just returned from a missionary trip to Puerto Rico. A peek at the world beyond their small, bucolic town has inspired in Owen a taste for the unconventional. He’s into organic farming and meditation, and harbors a veiled hostility toward his wife, Misty (Jessamine Burgum, “Tankhouse”). Lean and flinty-eyed, Pullman could not be further from his “Top Gun: Maverick” character Bob as the inscrutable Owen.
Dreamy Jem has a crush on Owen, going out of her way to spend time with him alone and finagling a role as the dance troupe leader. Parmet animates their private moments with a breathless sense of loaded intimacy that pulls the tension taut. Mundane physical interactions like an ad-hoc dance lesson, an ear piercing, or a game of Skee-Ball are fraught with searing chemistry between Scanlen and Pullman.
Jem thinks she knows what she wants with Owen, and their friendship takes a turn for the romantic and the sexual. Parmet offers a complex depiction of an imbalanced relationship in which both parties seem to think they’re in love and that this is “God’s plan.” If God is love, and this is love, how can it be wrong? Owen capitalizes on Jem’s innocent desire and her naïveté, though she believes she’s an equal partner in this affair. For a moment, their time together is a brief respite from the repression and denialism of their church community, but that culture is also what enabled this relationship.
The ramifications of pious perfectionism extend to the other Starling family members as well. Heidi is the rigid taskmistress, keeping up appearances and enforcing the moral code. Jem’s father, Paul (a terrific Jimmi Simpson), is a recovering addict and former country musician slipping in his sobriety after the death of an old friend. Unable to express his grief he turns to drinking and crying in the garage, spiraling in tandem with his daughter, but while she spirals out, he goes down.
Parmet’s script is authentic, economical, and carefully layered with double-speak; what’s not said is more laden with meaning that what is. The world she builds feels so real, thanks to extensive research and interviews with women in religious communities like this, and she also renders it naturally beautiful through cinematographer Brian Lannin’s lens. Jem finds sensual pleasure in the tender grass and warm sun, catharsis in the cool waters of the creek. We believe her when she tells Owen, who is longing for the exotic escape of Puerto Rico, that the only place in the world she’d like to live is right there in the lush, green womb of her Kentucky home.
Jem has no desire to leave, or to desert her family; she is only a child, after all. But the oppression of this religious community, built on misogyny and manipulation, enforced with public shame and brutality, is unbearable. She can either break down or break free.
Parmet’s strong script and surety behind the camera navigates the audience through this complicated story of religion and sexuality, patriarchy and power, brought to eerily accurate life by the ensemble of excellent actors. Scanlen, who is always tremendous, from “Little Women” to “Babyteeth,” holds the center with ease, while Pullman proves his chops in this complex role. But Schmidt (whose accent and cadence is spot on) and Simpson just about steal the show in their supporting roles as the steely, severe Heidi and deteriorating Paul.
This assured debut signals Parmet as a filmmaker daring enough to tackle challenging subjects with nuance, empathy, and an unflinching discernment. Starlings are birds known for their aerial dancing, and in “The Starling Girl” Parmet keeps the focus on the girl in question, imagining a way for her to dance again.
“The Starling Girl” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.