“Don’t tell anyone.”
This is the phrase that (almost) begins The Starling Girl as youth pastor Owen hides his smoking habit behind the church walls. But this brief exchange of confidence becomes symbolic of far more than taking secret cigarettes. Instead, it’s indicative of a system of righteousness that hides more than it helps.
The Starling Girl tells the story of Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old girl who’s family remains commited to their conservative Christian church. Despite her troubles within her family, Jem is actively involved in their church community but she remains stuck under the watchful thumb of oppressive church leadership. Though, her world is shaken by the return of Owen (Lewis Pullman), the church’s attractive youth pastor. As Owen and Jem begin to work together more, a relationship develops between them that both inspires and threatens to destroy their families (and the church).
Written and directed by Laurel Parmet, The Starling Girl is a fascinating drama that unravels the church system with precision and severity. Although it remains to be seen whether or not Parmet has any personal experience with church communities, her portrayal of its intricacies feels authentic. While certain aspects are (hopefully) exaggerated for effect, the people of this church are shown to be devout in their beliefs, even to the point of fear. They are simple people, trying to honour their faith within their daily lives. However, as we get to know them, we see that church becomes a place of performance, despite how they claim to ‘connect with God’.
In this way, this church becomes a world of secrets. Other than Owen and Jem’s relationship, we find that everyone here is required to put on a righteous face. This community exists under such a blanket of shame that their personal failings throughout the week must remain hidden when they pull into the church parking lot on Sunday morning. As everyone arrives in white outfits of innocence, services are deemed perfect… yet remain filled with imperfect people in an imperfect system. For example, Jem’s father tries to hide his personal addictions while Owen and his wife hide their faltering relationship.
In Starling, everyone is broken but no one has the courage to admit it.
Though, what’s truly bone-chilling about Starling are the ways in which people continue justify their behaviour by ‘asking God’. In this community, the phrase ‘I prayed on it’ is thrown around whenever a decision needs to be made… but the results almost always toxic. Men enforce their dominance over the women of the community because they ‘prayed on it’. Owen validates his betrayal because he ‘prayed on it’. Women are forced to hide their sexuality because it could be a stumbling block after leaders have ‘prayed on it’. This is a world where God seems to be consulted on an awful lot of decisions yet, when brought to fullness, they never offer hope or healing to the people.
If anything, these prayers only bring more shame upon them.
In terms of performances, credit must be given to Scanlen for her performance as Jenna. Scanlen ensures that Jem is shown to be a young woman of innocence but also finds a courage and fire in her that grows as the film unfolds. In some ways, Starling is a tale of abuse at the hands of toxic masculinity. In others, it’s a story of feminine sexual empowerment as a coming-of-age tale. But that complexity rests entirely on Scanlen’s performance as Jem provides the eyes through which we see this world.
Admittedly, The Starling Girl will not be for everyone. But, regardless of your feelings about it, Parmet’s incisive script is bound to create a response (especially given the film’s genuinely surprising finale). This little drama is designed to create conversations about church abuse, the freedom of feminine sexuality and the ‘male gaze’. And it would be a shame to miss out on that opportunity.
The Starling Girl is available in theatres on Friday, May 19th, 2023.