Review by Tatiana Miranda
Florida-native Ethel Cain’s music deals with what she knows: religious fervor in the South. Yet her music resonates with more than just the small population she is familiar with, as she even plays acclaimed festivals such as Coachella. Other pieces of media like the recent film Bones and All give a voice to the inhabitants of mid-America in a way that seems idealized yet eerie, similar to Ethel Cain’s discography. Laurel Parmet’s directorial debut, The Starling Girl, follows in this footstep, as it centers around a teenage girl living in rural Kentucky surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. As lyrics about religious upbringings flood TikTok and denim maxi skirts make a return, The Starling Girl can’t help but being incredibly meta, whether intentionally or not.
While its depiction of Christianity might feel extremely familiar to those with religious backgrounds, its coming-of-age tone is applicable to almost anyone. The film opens with 17-year-old Jem Starling as she performs in her local church’s dance troupe. As she talks to her family and pastor, another woman in the church pulls her aside to tell her that she could see her bra through her top. Like how anyone who has grown up in the church would react, Jem suddenly feels ashamed and dashes out of the church to cry. This is when she bumps into Owen Taylor, the pastor’s son who has just returned from a mission trip.
Owen resumes his role in the church as the youth pastor and his weird way of leading bible study catches the attention of Jem. Soon she finds herself itching to get closer to him and gain his approval. Her interest in him mixed with her courting his younger brother, Ben, signals the beginning of her romantic life and entry into womanhood. Jem’s perception of Owen starkly contrasts that of his brother. In one scene, she is disgusted as Ben talks about a sick animal he once saw. Meanwhile, she perceives Owen as caring and mature. This is all through her rose-tinted glasses, though, as his true nature comes out sooner rather than later.
Even though Parmet’s teenage years were quite different from Jem’s, as she is the daughter of cinematographer Phil Parmet, she captures the youthful infatuation and sexually repressed confusion in an incredibly nuanced way. The Starling Girl’s depiction of religious beliefs is never criticized in and of itself, but instead points out the flaws that come from the people around Jem who manipulate the religion to fit their agenda. Even Owen, who she believes is above that, routinely uses Christianity to justify his decisions.
Religion is at the heart of the movie, and it would have been easy for it to take an overly critical route. Instead, it points out its downfalls but also how it provides a sense of hope and belonging for Jem. The Starling Girl is perhaps one of the most accurate fictionalized portrayals of Christian fundamentalist communities, and it does so in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or judgmental.
The Starling Girl is now in theaters.