Sundance Film Festival 2023: ‘The Starling Girl’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

In rural Kentucky, a seventeen-year-old girl struggles to define herself within her Christian community. Many don’t realize how repressed these young women are because of their religious conditioning and social conformity. There is no freedom to experiment or to speak freely because of the deep connectivity to God and the community. For young Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlan), life is getting difficult because she is beginning to see the truth. There will always be grey areas and mistakes that people can learn from and grow. Jem discovers that life can be messy and everyone has secrets of their own. Writer-director Laurel Parmet explores spirituality through relationships and how love can be skewed. 

Parmet’s direction is tender as she carefully peels back the layers of Jem Starling. A teenage girl has urges that she can’t quite describe, and it’s even harder when she has no idea what those urges are. Jem is intrigued by her sexuality and naturally wants to become her own woman. This coming-of-age story expands on the notion that the more uneducated women are about their sexuality, the more impulsive they are to make the wrong decision. When Jem meets Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), a young pastor who has returned from his travels, the idea of relationships for Jem changes. Owen is this older man whom Jem does fall for, but she has trouble understanding if it’s lust (from the devil himself) or a loving connection everyone keeps telling her about.

The tension builds between Owen and Jem because of the subtle moments shared. Parmet doesn’t have the two of them rush into anything and has Jem take the reigns of her sexuality. Jem slowly gains confidence in her body and how to present herself to Owen. On top of that, it feels forbidden, and Owen is unattainable because he’s married. That doesn’t stop Jem because she finally feels free to do as she pleases. Owen connects with her on a spiritual level, which gives her comfort and relief. When Jem experiences pleasure unknown to her, she doesn’t feel shame, which is important to show in this environment. Scanlan gives a nuanced emotional performance as Jem, and it is one of her best roles to date. 

The Starling Girl informs audiences about pockets of the United States that are blinded by faith with no balance in educating their children. Parmet shows what families keep hidden to keep the perfect facade within the community but ultimately damages the children. Not only did Jem have to deal with her issues in becoming a woman, but she also had to handle her father’s addiction which her mother refused to see. In many cases, the younger generation is more in tune with how family life should be because that is what they have been taught. So when they feel like something is broken, they react to what they thought they knew. Once young adults get a taste of freedom and make decisions they will do whatever it takes to get out of the hold their family has them in. 


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