Producers: Kevin Rowe and Kara Durrett Director: Laurel Parmet Screenplay: Laurel Parmet Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams, Wrenn Schmidt, Kyle Secor, Jessamine Burgum, Paige Leigh Landers, Briana Bronger, K.J. Baker, Claire Elizabeth Green, Ellie May, Chris Dinner and Kieran Sitawi Distributor: Bleecker Street
Writer-director Laurel Parmet’s film is about a young girl’s struggle against temptation, and watching “The Starling Girl” one can sense Parmet’s own struggle against the temptation to succumb to melodramatic excess. Unfortunately she doesn’t escape the inclination, though she treats the material with greater restraint than many would; and thanks to a fine lead performance by Eliza Scanlen, the coming-of-age tale emerges as fairly moving, if in the end overly obvious.
Jem Starling (Scanlen) and her family—parents Paul (Jimmi Simpson) and Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) and younger siblings Rebecca (Claire Elizabeth Green), Sarah (Ellie May), Noah (Chris Dinner) and Jeremy (Kieran Sitawi)—are members of a fundamentalist religious community in rural Kentucky. It’s an increasingly stifling environment for Jem, whose only available option to resist her troubling sexual impulses is prayer.
It doesn’t help that Pastor Taylor (Kyle Secor) and his wife Anne (K.J. Baker) are keeping an exceptionally close eye on Jem—Anne pointing out at one point, for example, that her bra is visible beneath her dress—because they’re considering her as a prospective bride for their younger son Ben (Austin Abrams). Jem, however, finds Ben a bore, and is much more taken by the pastor’s older son Owen (Lewis Pullman), who’s just returned from a missionary stint abroad to become the community’s youth minister. He’s married, but his relative worldliness and nonchalantly independent streak are attractive to Jem.
Owen reciprocates Jem’s interest, and encourages her in the one area in which she’s been able to express her longing for freedom—the dance troupe that performs at worship services. When its leader drops out because of pregnancy, Owen appoints Jem as her replacement, despite the envy of her fellow dancers. She embraces the opportunity to show her creativity, though even here the heavy hand of the communal leadership is felt when Owen’s wife Misty (Jessamine Burgum) objects to one of Jem’s choreographic choices as prideful.
Owen’s attention to Jem is not altruistic. He’s seducing her, taking advantage of her naiveté by telling her that his marriage is unhappy, and when their affair is discovered—in a “hide in the closet” sequence that we’ve seen played for comic effect many times elsewhere but here is done in absolute seriousness—he proves himself a cad, but then doubles down with a proposal that they run away together. Meanwhile Jem becomes aware of deep problems in her parents’ marriage, which only reemphasizes the hypocrisy she’s facing.
Parmet and her technical collaborators—production designer Mollie Wartelle, costumer Tora Eff, cinematographer Brian Lannin—capture the closed, claustrophobic quality of the community. while Sam Levy’s nervous editing and Ben Schneider’s spare score add to the ambience. Most important of all, Scanlen brings desperation and yearning to Jem. The other actors, however, are mostly straightjacketed by the script’s conformities; that’s especially true of Pullman, who never finds a way to add convincing complexity to Owen, but it applies to the rest of the supporting cast as well.
What remains is a not unfamiliar story of a girl’s struggle to escape from a confining environment—in this case, a harshly fundamentalist Christian one—in the face of the incomprehension of adults set in their ways and determined to keep her subject to their rigid belief system. And while the employment of dance as the symbol of liberation allows for easy visualization, it too comes across as a rather tired device. (It’s not exactly “Footloose,” but it’s not much more profound.) And it leads to a conclusion that, given all that’s come before, is too easy and elliptical. Even the title, which suggests a fledgling leaving the nest, is awfully on-the-nose.
Still, there are too many good elements in “The Starling Girl,” most notably Scanlen’s performance, to dismiss it out of hand. It’s a debut feature from a filmmaker of promise that might be realized more fully down the line.