The Starling Girl Review: Eliza Scanlen Gives In To Temptation [Sundance]

Eliza Scanlen, whom you may recognize from her slithery supporting performance as Amy Adams' half-sister in 2018's twisty HBO miniseries "Sharp Objects" or as one of the March sisters in Greta Gerwig's phenomenal adaptation of "Little Women," takes the lead in "The Starling Girl," returning to Sundance for the first time since she headlined "Babyteeth" in 2019. While this movie's story may sound familiar — it's about a religious teenage girl's sexual awakening in a stuffy community that would rather never address such things — its success is dependent on its execution, and writer/director Laurel Parmet, in her feature directorial debut, hits every target she aims for along the way.

17-year-old Jem Starling (Scanlen) is a devout Christian born and raised in rural Kentucky. Her entire world revolves around her family and her church, despite the fact that it's the type of place where a grown woman pulls Jem and her mom aside to chastise Jem for wearing a white shirt through which the outline of her bra can be seen. "It's a teachable moment," the woman says, dripping with Southern condescension, but there's nobody there to roll their eyes or call her out — everyone in this community, including Jem and her family, is all-in on the fundamentalist lifestyle. Jem is genuinely upset with herself, thinking she wasn't being mindful enough of God when picking out her clothes. While this level of piety likely seems abjectly ridiculous to the average viewer, Parmet presents it as matter-of-fact, quickly setting the stakes for this world and guiding us into the mindset of her characters. This place is serious: Another teen comes back from a "camp" after getting caught watching porn, bearing a new scar on his hand amid rumors that he was forced to perform hard labor while he was there.

Scanlen and Lewis Pullman carry the film

Another returning figure is Owen Taylor, the church's youth pastor, back from a missionary trip in Puerto Rico and now having trouble in his marriage. Jem quickly develops a crush on him, and as she edges closer, concocting ways for the two of them to be alone, it's clear where this is all heading. Of course, there's not only a big age difference (Owen is approximately a decade older than Jem), but a huge power imbalance in this burgeoning affair, and the movie is extremely interested in exploring the effects of that dynamic on the two characters. While it's clear to anyone watching that this is a fraught situation, Jem totally buys into Owen's justifications about how they're destined to be together and how their union pleases God; she's a true believer, praying to be filled to the brim with love, and using her church dance troupe as an outlet to express the newfound freedom she feels as a young woman coming into her own. Owen, on the other hand, comes off as more of a scumbag; he doesn't believe his own BS as much as he just wants to get laid, and with his wife snipping at him at home, he seeks refuge in the company of a girl who actually gives him the adulation he craves.

Owen is played by Lewis Pullman (son of Bill Pullman), who played the goofy sidekick character "Bob" in last year's "Top Gun: Maverick." You'd never know that from this performance: He's completely ditched the nerd vibes here, and instead tapped into something more resembling a mixture of Bradley Cooper and Ben Barnes, all slicked hair and rolled sleeves and a hint of facial scruff. It's weird to say Scanlen and Pullman have great chemistry when their relationship is not one the audience is rooting for, but they're both doing excellent work, strapping a majority of the story to their backs and carrying it toward the finale.

An added layer of complexity

As Jem and Owen sneak around trying to hide their relationship, Jem's home life takes a turn for the worse. Her father, an ex-musician who played secular music before he cleaned up his life and became a fundamentalist, backslides into drinking after learning that his former bandmate took his own life. Jimmi Simpson does some of the best work of his career here, turning in a subtle and heavy-hearted performance that could have been absolutely disastrous in the wrong hands. His subplot has significant ripple effects on the Starling family, and it provides Jem with a glimpse at a side of her dad she'd never seen before. 

More than just an indictment of the hypocrisy that has become part and parcel of ultra-religious communities, "The Starling Girl" is a non-judgmental character study of a young girl who's been raised in such a strict fashion that it was only a matter of time before something gave way. Laurel Parmet cares deeply about Jem, and while the events of this movie irrevocably change the character as she loses her childhood innocence and is thrust into adulthood, there's also a tinge of hope here. The world is a big place, and leaving where you grew up can be an eye-opening experience — one this particular character desperately needs.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10