de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

The Starling Girl, the debut film by Laurel Palmet, could more aptly be titled: “that Starling girl,” just by the way it victimizes its main character alone. It’s a story about a young Christian fundamentalist girl, Jem, played by Eliza Scanlen, who falls in love with her youth pastor, Owen, played by Lewis Pullman. It’s an old story, but in this highly religious community, we see completely opposed citizens trying to use God as an excuse for their separate actions.

This first film from Laurel Palmet is impressive to say the least. Her direction, coupled with a script steeped in research about rural Christian communities makes her story seem like it could, no, has, happened somewhere before. The casting of Eliza Scanlen is pitch perfect. Scanlen, whom you might remember from her star-making performance in the HBO series Sharp Objects, brings all of the same charisma from that role and applies it to an ingenue undergoing a transformation. Pullman, who was excellent in the Hulu series Catch-22 as the hilarious Major Major, is dealt a complex role here. He plays it with nuance and is almost as much of a reason for this film’s success as Scanlen herself. There are other great performances here; Always Sunny alum Jimmi Simpson is phenomenal as the tarnished and faltering Paul. His self-destruction as Jem’s father lends immense credibility to her character’s struggles.

The Starling Girl is definitely a film which showcases and thrives via its lead performer. Scanlen’s specifically youthful demeanor and vulnerability make her onscreen moments powerful and relatable, but Palmet’s direction is great too. In a large way, it’s a film about growing up, but it’s a young woman’s story after all. We see what Jem has to go through; her teenage urges and her susceptibility to the coaching and guidance of the adults in her proximity shape her in irrevocable ways. Her mother wants a nice young boy to court her (ironically enough, he is the pastor’s younger, less attractive brother), and she says God has willed it. When the youth pastor Owen, age 28, seduces her, it is because God has, you guessed it, willed this as well.

This would be tiresome and flat if it weren’t so relevant in today’s society. The film speaks about religion but it’s not really about devotion to God. The religious veneer is more of a device to show just how oppressed and ignored and victimized women (in this case, young women) can be when they are swept up by the pressures of the place they grow up. There are bright moments for Jem too. She finds herself in performative dance, but her affair proves to be too distracting for her to continue this hobby. Her father’s old tales about his time as a country music singer give her hope that she too, can do something outside of this community.

Palmet also subverts expectations pretty efficiently several times throughout the film. Though it’s an old tale, and the affair has many of the hallmarks of predictable movies in the same vein, Palmet keeps you guessing at every turn. This director, for her part, is confident behind the camera. The images are well-planned, and there are many bike-riding scenes along the dirt roads and cloudy rivers that make Jem’s world feel just as real as ours. If cementing the viewer into the world you’ve built is the job of the director, then Palmet has come through with flying colors. The scenic Kentucky overlay gives this film a ton of character. And that’s in addition to the amazing performances of Scanlen and Pullman. In a lot of ways, it’s a film about growing up in a place where the community believes that maturation can often involve corruption by malevolent beings. This puts so much pressure on the youth, and Scanlen and Palmet work together to make this point feel effortless.

Owing its success to a visionary debut director, a perfectly-executed rural setting and premium performances from its stellar cast, The Starling Girl is a coming of age story that comments on the perils of religion, patriarchy, sexuality, and disillusionment with great ease and poignancy.