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‘The Starling Girl’ is a provocative drama set in an evangelical community

In Laurel Parmet’s debut, a teenage girl and a youth pastor embark on an ill-advised entanglement.

Lewis Pullman and Eliza Scanlen in Bleecker Street's "The Starling Girl."Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street

Laurel Parmet makes a striking, assured feature directorial debut with “The Starling Girl,” which serves double duty in solidifying Eliza Scanlen’s already pretty solid reputation as a young actor worth watching. You may know Scanlen from 2019′s “Little Women” or the series “Sharp Objects”; she was also a knockout in the too-little seen Australian picture “Babyteeth.”

“The Starling Girl” opens Friday in theaters.

This picture begins with her, as teenager Jem Starling, earnestly absorbed in prayer, asking God to make her a reflection to others of His perfection: “Let it not be me they see, let it be you.”

Eliza Scanlen in Bleecker Street's "The Starling Girl."Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street

In the Southern, semi-rural evangelical community to which Jem’s family belongs, all actions are to be directed in the service of God’s glory. Jem gets a lot of enjoyment out of working in her church’s youth dance troupe, but when she proposes to lead it, her mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), questions her motivations: “Is this for God, or for vanity?”

“The Starling Girl” is very much taken up with the question of the self and its presentation, because the 17-year-old Jem is at the age where one traditionally really begins to find that self. It’s a hard time for reasons both biological and psychological. Adolescence is a messy thicket one needs to hack oneself out of in order to begin “functioning” as an adult.


A distinctive figure Jem finds in this thicket is the youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman, in a strong, unshowy performance), fresh from preaching in Puerto Rico and full of interesting ideas for the kids, like having them lay down on the floor in a circle, the better to “share the ground God gave us.”

Lewis Pullman in Bleecker Street's "The Starling Girl." Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street

In his late 20s, Owen doesn’t quite flirt with Jem, although one isn’t initially entirely sure how to take his playful teasing of the girl. A solo shower scene conveys that Jem herself is very overtly attracted to the fellow. In an awkward development, she’s being encouraged to allow Owen’s younger, age-appropriate brother Ben (Austin Abrams) to “court” her. Another complication in Jem’s life is her alcoholic dad, Paul (Jimmi Simpson, typically excellent here); the recent death of a friend from his very secular music-making past has reawakened something in him that’s not too godly.


Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt in Bleecker Street's "The Starling Girl."Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street

The most disturbing thing about what Owen and Jem soon get up to — which shouldn’t be called an affair, given the imbalance of their dynamic — is the rush of it and their seeming lack of mindfulness. They don’t convey a sense of stepping over any kind of brink, moral or societal. When Owen gifts Jem with a secret cell phone that she accepts without a raised eyebrow, the two feel like co-conspirators, no matter what the actual power dynamic here is.

Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in Bleecker Street's "The Starling Girl."Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street

Parmet’s disinclination to pass judgment on the situation is arguably a radical move, particularly nowadays, and it may offend some viewers. In any event, the movie gets a little more conventional as it follows a familiar arc. Particularly given the way this community works, the situation cannot, will not, stand. Jem, at first, sees the impossibility. When Owen speaks of wanting to “be” with Jem in a larger sense, she brings up the obvious point: “But you’re married.” Owen shoots back, “Yeah, and we can’t stand each other.”

As it happens, his marriage to Misty (Jessamine Burgum) was an arranged one, and when Misty observes Jem rehearsing the dance troupe, her criticisms have the passive-aggressive edge of someone who knows something’s up.


Many years ago, I was having a conversation with a musician in which I brought up his bandmate’s recent and enthusiastic exploration of blues music. He wrinkled his nose and said, not without affection, “Commendable, albeit a little … anthropological, I think.” When certain filmmakers presume to contrive stories of rural people of faith, there’s always the risk that a certain academicism, and some worse things, will dominate their explorations. Writer-director Parmet is the daughter of a cinematographer, Phil Parmet, and she studied film at New York University. To her great credit (and one must also mention the production design by Mollie Wartell, and the low-key but on occasion lush cinematography by Brian Lannin), Parmet here creates an environment that feels lived-in, and portrays it without condescension.

And Scanlen’s detailed work keeps the movie emotionally credible. At the end of the picture, this Starling gets out of her cage — perhaps only temporarily — in a way you might not anticipate. But it’s one that makes a perfect kind of sense given where she’s coming from.



Written and directed by Laurel Parmet. Starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson. At Landmark Kendall Square, AMC Boston Common, Dedham Community Theatre. 116 minutes. R (very dicey adult situations and language)