While right-wing conservatives attack the LGBTQ community specifically targeting drag performers and transgender people, an uprising on TikTok is underway which is turning the focus of sexual abuse towards religious leaders who seem to go unpunished after decades of reported misconduct. In writer-director Laurel Parmet’s feature debut a teenage girl (Eliza Scanlen) in a Christian fundamentalist group begins having an affair with her married and older youth pastor (Lewis Pullman) who uses the bible as a weapon of seduction. Ripe with tension, the searing drama stirs up feelings of outrage as victim shaming proves to be the most powerful weapon in the religious abuser’s arsenal.
Eliza Scanlen made her acting debut four years ago in Greta Gerwigs’ “Little Women” as Beth, the kind and caring March sister at the heart of the story. There’s a little Beth in Jem Starling, the 17-year-old protagonist played by Scanlen at the center of Parmet’s “The Starling Girl” which takes place in Kentucky amidst a small Christian fundamentalist group run by Pastor Taylor (Kyle Secor).
We first meet Jem, dressed in white, starting her day with a prayer to the Lord, “I hope to glorify You in all I do.” Minutes later she’s performing an interpretive dance with several other girls in front of the congregation at the Holy Grace Church to the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.” With the synchronicity of a well-rehearsed ballet troupe, the performance goes off without a hitch. However, minutes later a female congregant approaches Jem and her mother Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt) in what we guess will be a compliment on the teenager’s performance. It’s not. She points out that the bra Jem chose is visible through her white dress. Heidi quickly removes her shawl and places it on her daughter as Jem looks on horrified and embarrassed. The adults play it off as a “teachable moment” and it is for our eponymous central character who slowly begins to think for herself as victim shaming becomes a part of her daily life.
As Jem sits alone crying softly outside the church, she runs into the group’s youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman from “Top Gun: Maverick”) sneaking in a cigarette break. The 30-year-old charismatic and married church elder, the son of Pastor Taylor, asks her not to tell (creating an instant bond between the two) and if she’s okay. Jen responds “Yes” and then welcomes him home before running back inside. Owen just returned from Puerto Rico where he served as a missionary. Many in the group believe that he and his wife Misty (Jessamine Burgum) should have children by now but as Own sits in his car brooding before church service, it’s a sign that there’s trouble in paradise.
Education for women seems to be on the back burner for many Christian fundamentalists as the females are rushed into marriage, destined to play the supporting role, as men are often viewed as superiors. The atmosphere is ripe for sexual predators who take advantage of trusting and naïve females who are often victim shamed by the male clergyman. If you can’t trust your pastor, who can you trust? This scenario is played out in Parmet’s feature after she was inspired to write the story by female members of a Christian fundamentalist group where a woman who had an affair with a church leader, received 100% of the blame.
What makes “The Starling Girl” so compelling apart from the luminous performance by Eliza Scanlen (her career best so far) as Jem, is the casting of Lewis Pullman as Owen. It only took a brief cameo in 2017’s “Lean on Pete” that indicated the actor was destined to make his mark in “the biz” as they say, and he’s done that with a string of solid performances culminating with last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick.” Pullman’s reserved performance as the youth pastor is multi-layered and can’t be written off as just another sexual predator using religion for bad. We are never sure if Owen believes that God is steering him in Jem’s direction or if he’s just another creep who views the church as his “wingman.”
As Owen begins showing attention to Jem, she begins to see him in a different light. She rides her bike over to his home where he’s gardening just to tell him how much she enjoyed the last youth service. Then in another scene, she lets the air out of her tire so that he can give her a ride home. Never once do we blame Jem for what’s about to transpire. She’s not the first girl to have a crush on an older man.
As they ride in his car Owen impresses Jem with pictures of Puerto Rico on his cell phone. She responds by suggesting that he return to the Caribbean island since he loved it so much, but Owen knows his wife would disapprove. The two continue to exchange glances that prove to be more forceful than their dialogue. Dance plays a prominent role in the film and the car ride transforms into a psychological dance of seduction between the pair, reaching a crescendo when Owen makes Jem spit her gum out into the palm of his hand while she grins from ear to ear.
When Jem and Owen finally have sex it’s not romantic or erotic, how could it be? Parmet handles the scene with sensitivity as the two seem to be releasing tension more than anything else. When it’s done and guilt rises to the surface Jem asks, “Do you think I’m wicked?” Owen responds, “You’re the furthest thing from it.” Then he justifies their actions by telling Jem that he’s in a loveless marriage and that when it comes to her, he’s never felt this way about anyone. By the time he spouts, “I’ve been praying on it a lot, and it don’t feel like a sin,” Jem is convinced that somehow the Lord has a hand in this forbidden action.
Meanwhile, Jem is being courted by Owen’s younger brother Ben (Austin Abrams) at the behest of both his parents and hers. The teenager who is the same age as Jem seems to be striking out (unaware of Owen’s actions) as his method of winning her over includes telling gross stories about chickens defecating, with intricate detail.
The film features good performances by Wrenn Schmidt as Jem’s mom and especially Jimmi Simpson as Jem’s father Paul, a former musician who used to play secular music before he was “saved.” Paul is also a recovering alcoholic who longs for those days of writing country songs and life on the road after finding out about a former friend and bandmate’s death. He accepts his new Christian life but falls into a relapse, observed by Jem, who like her father, yearns for something more. She is Daddy’s girl for sure.
It can be aggravating watching adults use religion for their own benefit. Some scholars argue that Christianity makes people “self-centered” thrusting their views upon others. As a Catholic who attended private school, I can attest to the “holier-than-thou” complex that develops in some people. Religious groups, whether they are fundamentalists or part of the Catholic church, tend to sweep allegations of sexual abuse under the rug while using victim blaming as a tactic to exonerate the abuser. Jem falls prey to such treatment which also stirs up the viewer’s emotions as the events unfold.
Laurel Parmet’s feature debut is told from Jem’s viewpoint which makes it much more emotional to watch as feelings of empathy are felt for our teenage protagonist. Eliza Scanlen is superb in a moving performance that lingers long after leaving the theater. Betrayal and liberation appear in the final act which feels a bit rushed and sensational, but it left me longing for more. I want to know what happens to all these characters down the road. Few films leave me with that kind of longing.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Plano)