REVIEW: ‘The Starling Girl’ (2023) Offers an Empathetic Coming-of-Age Story

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“An incredible story that studies the struggle of faith, love, and freedom”

Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl is a coming-of-age drama that follows a young, obedient girl in a fundamentalist society who is seduced by a former pastor. It’s an incredible story that studies the struggle of faith, love, and freedom through the lens of Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen). At the beginning of the movie, 17-year-old Jem is an energetic teenager with a passion for dance and theatre who lives in a small, conservative community in Kentucky. Jem dreams of wanting something more than her life, but because she is the eldest daughter in her family, she has responsibilities and duties to tend to, such as taking care of her siblings, starting a family of her own, and taking care of the household. Her parents, Heidi and Paul Starling (Wrenn Schmidt and Jimmi Simpson, respectively) depend on her to tend to everything, while her father battles with alcoholism and isolates himself from the rest of the community. When former youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), moves back to Kentucky and takes a liking to Jem, he understands Jem’s desire to be different and free from the rest of the community. For the first time in her life, someone pays attention to her. As their relationship turns predatory, Jem begins to explore the rigid rules of her strict community and discovers Owen’s dark and dangerous desires that will destroy their lives.

Eliza Scanlen as Jem Starling. Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

The Starling Girl explores themes of freedom, curiosity, and romance that are familiar within a coming-of-age drama. However, while these films usually focuses on a teenager learning to navigate their life as a student or even figuring out their romantic interests, what makes The Starling Girl different is that Parmet adds more volume to the genre by examining the religious aspect. Oppression and the subtle undertones of misogyny are prevalent in the movie, even when the words aren’t outright said aloud. Jem is a naive teenager who is unaware of the inequality and oppression that she faces. When Owen enters her world, he opens her eyes to new possibilities, but it quickly gets cloudy because she is unaware of the consequences of a predatory relationship. Her sheltered life and the conservative community she has been part of her entire life coddled her worldview. Dressing in clothes where she has to cover her ankles and shoulders, she has never experienced culture outside of Kentucky. Parmet portrays these complex themes through a delicate lens and never strays away from showing Jem’s perspective, connecting the viewer with her from the very start of the movie. 

Scanlen, whose previous roles include Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Amma Crellin in HBO’s Sharp Objects, (alongside Amy Adams), is a visionary in The Starling Girl. She portrays the quiet power of Jem’s energetic personality, while also understanding the disturbing role of her character’s predatory relationship with Owen. Parmet allows her audience to understand Jem’s frustrations with her life, offering an intimate and empathetic perspective. The Starling Girl is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t explore the teenager’s journey of adolescence; instead, it is a disturbing portrait of women who have internalised misogyny and the many ways in which women are conditioned to behave a certain way. It is a story that begins to unravel the grips of religion and a toxic, forbidden relationship, taking the viewer on an emotional journey.