Most people adore the SXSW Festival for its abundance of World Premiere screenings. Being the first to do something almost always comes with an accomplished feeling. I, however, tend to gravitate to SXSW’s “Festival Favorites” section, where a handful of well-received films are generally plucked from the Sundance slate and brought to Texas for a few select viewings. One such film that made the journey from Park City to Austin is Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl, a meticulous and methodical examination of a teenager’s life in a strict, Christian fundamentalist community.
Jem Starling (played by Eliza Scanlen) is the eldest daughter of a devout Christian family. She’s the ideal oldest sibling, she helps take care of her younger sisters and she’s dedicated to God. But when the 17-year-old girl begins being courted by a young man that she’s flat-out uninterested in, her passions swiftly gravitate to Owen Taylor (Top Gun: Maverick’s Lewis Pullman), a married youth pastor who has recently returned to the community following a religious stint abroad. Jem and Owen’s organic friendship slowly evolves into much more and their compromising relationship leads Jem on a dark and difficult journey of self-discovery.
Writer and director Laurel Parmet uses her debut feature as a platform to deconstruct religious fanaticism and highlight a woman’s place in those communities. Jem, like her struggling father Paul (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Jimmi Simpson), longs for a more meaningful life than just servitude to God. This quest for “more” begins harmlessly when Jem uses her natural influence over Owen to gain a leadership role in the church’s youth dance group, and where she immediately puts herself at the center of the choreography. Yet, Jem’s thirst for “more” continues to grow and it takes a more physical form as she and Owen begin a secret affair. It’s through these deceitful actions that Jem is forced to discover what she really wants and what she really believes in the face of the only life she has ever known.
The Starling Girl stands as a slow-boiling account of introspection. Laurel Parmet recognizes that the film’s significance lies within the many small details and, to her benefit, she refuses to rush the experience in any way. Pulling some inspiration from, perhaps, the first truly great female-centric literary work, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, we’re gifted a softly coddled and beautiful coming-of-age-story that’s exceptionally acted on all accounts and handled with Parmet’s extreme care.