Watching someone struggle with their faith, as well as come of age, is hard to pull off on-screen. Especially when your viewer is not religious, that aspect of the story can just bounce right off of them. Plus, there are so many coming of age tales that you really need to make sure it’s not something audiences have seen before. Luckily, The Starling Girl is not that. The mechanics of the plot have been done before, but not in this setting, and rarely with this interesting a leading lady at its core.
The Starling Girl is simple, to be sure, but the movie works by embracing that. Along with a terrific central performance, it’s the sort of independent cinema that we often see done mediocrely, especially on the festival circuit. Seeing it done as competently and as engagingly as it is here is a reminder that this kind of project certainly has its place. When done well, it can hit on subtle emotions in an engrossing manner.
For seventeen year old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), her rural Kentucky Christian fundamentalist community brings out conflicting emotions. On the one hand, she loves her family and does seem to have a relationship with religion. On the other, her desires, even just to dance, are always tamped down by worry that it could be a sinful act. Her father Paul (Jimmi Simpson) fights demons but has a connection with her, while her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) keeps her siblings at bay. Then, everything changes.
Returning to the community is youth paster Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman). Owen has seen the world, isn’t like the rest of the folks, and immediately connects with Jem. Slowly but surely, a relationship begins, one that opens her up to an emerging sexuality, but also defiance to parts of the dogma she finds ridiculous. It’s a tightrope for anyone to walk, but for her, it’s one that puts everything at risk if they get caught.
Eliza Scanlen is just terrific here. She allows you to watch the gradual progression of her character in a way that never feels forced, or even like acting. It’s a heartbreaking and naturalistic performance. This is just more evidence that Scanlen is an up and coming star in the industry. Lewis Pullman is charismatic, though a bit low-key to suggest the degree to which Jem becomes infatuated with Owen. Jimmi Simpson suggests a ton of layers to a character that’s mildly inconsistent, but certainly fascinating. More time with him and Scanlen would not have been a bad thing, that’s for sure.In addition to a very solid Wrenn Schmidt, supporting players here include Austin Abrams, Jessamine Burgum, Kyle Secor, and more.
Filmmaker Laurel Parmet keeps things simple, focusing in on Scanlen’s performance. It leads to a slack pacing, to be sure, but also a light hypnotic quality, as you watch her leading lady grow and interact with the world. Parmet has confidence in her, and while the writing and direction of The Starling Girl never raise up to a new level, Scanlen makes sure you’re never less than fully invested in what’s happening.
The Starling Girl doesn’t do anything revelatory, but by telling this particular story in this particular setting, it manages to stand out a bit. Throw in the work of Eliza Scanlen and there’s certainly enough her to warrant a recommendation. Especially for her performance, this is one indie film to definitely keep on your radar.