That old time religion takes another hit in The Starling Girl, an effective if somewhat overdrawn account of an obedient 17-year-old girl in a fundamentalist society who is lured astray by a local former pastor. Everything about Laurel Parmet’s feature directorial debut has been fastidiously tended to in this well-carpentered drama that will appeal to young female audiences who will be both fascinated with and appalled by the rigid strictures and male-dominated activities that, according to the film, define the lives of the women in such fundamentalist communities.
Having made several short films up to now in addition to playing Eliza Scanlen in the HBO series Sharp Objects and Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s film of Little Women, Parmet shows dramatic confidence as she sets up a story that serves as a reminder of how dominant religion-based societies are in significant swaths of American life. Quietly but firmly, the film makes clear its disapproval of such narrow and blinkered attitudes and spends more time watching the fundamentalists stuff their faces with dreadfully unhealthy food than providing much insight into the way they live their lives.
A bit coyly, the film, in which Tennessee substitutes imperceptibly for Kentucky, introduces unexpected sights in this rigidly conformist, rules-based society; there’s a briefly-seen naked man in one of the girl’s bedrooms, and it appears that something suspicious has been going on in one of the bathrooms. But these are fleeting moments, and we are shortly introduced to the local congregants, recognizable for their bland clothing, prim attitudes and habit of thanking God for something every 15 seconds or so. It really does look like a society that thinks it’s still 1953, if not 1640s Massachusetts.
The central figure here is teen Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a member of the Holy Grace Church youth group who is already being pushed down the path to matrimony. Assorted dorky marriage candidates present themselves, none of whom you’d think any self-respecting young lady would settle for, but girls get put on a fast-track to marriage and motherhood in these parts and there’s to be no argument about it. And who was that naked man in the bedroom anyway?
In a mostly-closed society defined by its strong set of rules, one’s transgressions can barely ever remain hidden (pierced ears are disapprovingly noticed), but that doesn’t stop Jem and the 30ish Owen Taylor (Aussie actor Lewis Pullman) from going all the way, an event that, given all the heavily-stressed prohibitions, seems to take place rather too quickly. “It doesn’t feel like a sin,” Jem immediately remarks afterwards, and her conversion to such a vile sin as sex arrives rather too easily, with no mention made of possible pregnancy or other consequences.
If Jem was going to make such an abrupt turnabout from everything she’s ever known, you’d think there would be at least some considerations made of what lies ahead. On top of that, the couple’s conversations are boring, making you feel that, if Jem was going to make such a significant leap from life-long religious obedience to wild thing, there would be emotional issues involved that are simply not acknowledged here.
Apart from these somewhat weighty issues, Parmet’s work here shows a confident hand in staging and with her actors, even as one misses some of the complexity such dramatic happenings would trigger in real life.
Jem’s predicament will trigger automatic emotional sympathy in most viewers, and those involved both in front of and behind the camera will certainly be heard from in the future.