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'The Starling Girl' Review

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February 6, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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The Starling Girl premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street will release the film in theaters on May 12.

The narrative beats within writer/director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl may not be the most original, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. Elevated by an excellent leading turn by Elzsia Scanlen, who continues her upward trajectory after successful supporting roles in hit films and television shows such as 2019’s Little Women and HBO’s Sharp Objects, Parmet’s feature debut offers a youthful examination of the struggle between personal ambitions and the confines of religious tolerance.

Scanlen is the titular Starling girl (Jem Starling to be exact), playing younger than herself through wardrobe decisions and physical performance. The Starling family is among many within a Christian fundamentalist community nestled in the Kentucky plains. Jem's actions are in service of what God and her community would want, such as leading a group prayer dance for her youth group. But just like every teenager, Jem starts to become drawn to the other sex, particularly her handsome youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman, last seen as the shy Lt. Robert “Bob” Floyd in Top Gun: Maverick), who happens to be ten years older than her and married. The attraction slowly becomes mutual, with the flirtation of danger being a catalyst of their desire for each other.

Parmet’s script focuses both on the personal aspects of this complicated relationship, and the societal judgment of it. As part of being a member of her community, Jem does not have the luxury of independence when choosing a romantic partner. Her devout mother and recovering alcoholic father have decided that Jem will be courted by Owen’s much younger brother Ben, despite there being no spark of affection between them. This loss of autonomy is painful to witness, mostly because of Scanlen’s displays of inner turmoil.

Much of the film plays within the tropes of this specific story, as our character rebels against their societal expectations, leading to consequences in their relationship with themself and others. At 116 minutes, the pacing could have been greatly quickened, or at least some of it chopped off in bulk. Much of the material with Jem’s father, played finely by Jimmi Simpson, plays dangerously close to parody as the struggles with addiction are delivered with such heavy-handedness.

If not for Scanlen’s performance, The Starling Girl would fall much further into the realm of obscurity its middling writing and direction had it heading for. If not for anything else, Parmet’s film has given one of our brightest young talents room to shine. Those with a deeply religious background may find more depth to it, but they may also find it dryly conventional.

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