Growing up in a tight-knit and ultra-religious community hasn’t been easy for 17 year old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen). Her elders, including her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), wield shame over the youth as a way to control them. It seems like everything Jem does, regardless of intent, draws attention to her body in a way that’s sinful. She struggles to connect with other members of the community until 28 year old youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman) comes back into town. Owen briefly fled his loveless marriage to Misty (Jessamine Burgum) for a mission trip to Puerto Rico. He’s come back a changed man. When Jem and Owen are reunited, it’s clear that there is an intense connection between the two. Their shared desire for quiet rebellion brings them together. Jem is torn between her obligations to her family, especially to her father Paul (Jimmi Simpson) who once led a secular life as a musician and now suffers from depression and addiction, and her growing lust for Owen.
Directed by Laurel Parmet, The Starling Girl’s tale of forbidden lust in a religious community will both titillate and disturb viewers. While the age gap is off-putting, Scanlen and Pullman are a magnetic pair and they do a great job depicting the emotional consequences of repression. Shame is a huge theme and viewers get to witness the many ways it rears its ugly head in Jem’s world. As someone who grew up in a very strict religion, I didn’t quite understand how there could be so many circumstances in which Jem and Owen were allowed to be alone together. Even a courtship scene in which Jem is matched with Owen’s brother has them alone and without an assigned chaperone. Alas, youth pastors having inappropriate relationships with minors is nothing new so these scenarios already do happen.
The Starling Girl screened at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.