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Starling Girl review – Eliza Scanlen shines in transgressive coming-of-age drama

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Ja Starling Girl, the feature debut of writer-director Laurel Parmet, offers two difficult and easily confusing tasks. First, finding the right tonal balance for a sexual relationship separated by age and authority – in this case, a heady, transgressive romance between 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) and her 28-year-old pastor, from a sudden beauty. Owen (Lewis Pullman, son of actor Bill). And the second, depicting an island religious community – a group of fundamentalist Christians in present-day Kentucky – with enough specificity and emotional acuity to bridge the gap with viewers who will find such a place opaque, unrelated or perhaps even unbelievable.

Parmet succeeds more on the first than on the second. The Starling Girl, anchored by a bristling performance by the ever-solid Scanlen, is at its best when it leans into the combustible suspense of a teenage girl glimpsing her own instincts – for honesty, for self-reliance and most threatening to pleasure. It’s ultimately less a portrait of a toxic relationship — that’s not the tone of Owen and Jem’s connection here — than a familiar battle of faith and feelings, of intuition versus indoctrination. , the fine line between sin and the sublime.

Glance by glare, Jem is invariably drawn to Owen against a backdrop of shameful conservatism. The first two reconnect in a stairwell outside the church – Jem in snotty tears after another member of the congregation berates her visible bra outline; Owen, recently returned from a mission trip to Puerto Rico, is the subject of gossip about why he and his wife (Jessamine Burgum) don’t have children yet. It’s Duggar-type Christian fundamentalism – long skirts and covered shoulders, no social associations outside of the church, and no secular culture.

The honeyed Southern summer setting, captivated by cinematographer Brian Lannin, feels expansive in a way that Jem’s social and emotional future does not. By day, she escapes into dance practice and solo bike rides at dusk, the air thick with humidity and crickets (figures repeatedly drip with sweat, often coinciding with a fusion of control ). At night, she experiments with masturbation and curses her sinful hand. One afternoon, her strictly devout mother (Wrenn Schmidt) and father (Jimmi Simpson), a former secular musician and drug addict whose recovery is closely tied to faith, inform her that it’s time for her to woo Owen’s painfully protected brother, Ben (Euphoria’s Austin Abrams), and that’s it.

Jem balks and negotiates – it’s never boring to watch Scanlen, notably of Sharp Objects and Little Women fame, play a character whose inner fire rubs with his scholarly politeness, and whose lust is fundamentally indistinguishable from a crucial curiosity for the world. This is where casting gets tricky. Scanlen, 24, has such a mastery of reckless, almost devious innocence that she can still pass a high school student, but barely. In another film, she and Pullman, who is 29, could play simple lovers. Last year, Sundance Palm Trees and Power Lines managed to balance both the magnetism and the rawness of a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 34-year-old man in large part thanks to the casting of the real teenager Lily McInerny, who looked believable her age – as in, more child than woman, shockingly young.

The Starling Girl manages to circumvent the issue of gullibility by defining the central relationship as less toxic than hopeless. Pullman ably plays Owen as a bit of a Peter Pan with a visibly fractured psyche. His instincts are nascent and powerful; he has been so stunted with shame that he looks like a teenager. The 116-minute film plays, but intentionally, as a genuine but deeply flawed connection, the inadequacy of which is surpassed by the ruthless expectations inflicted by their community. When he takes her virginity in the backseat of a car, in an expertly staged scene that focuses on her thrill and disappointment, it feels both painfully adolescent and eerie. He cannot conceive his pleasure; of course she will pay.

Parmet maintains a firm grip on this slippery relationship throughout his doomed journey, less on their world — if the rules are so strict and the gossip so thick here, how could these two plausibly get along. get away with time together? A side plot involving his father’s descent into alcoholism motivates Jem to be even more suspicious of his rigid world, but culminates in unnecessarily high stakes. The final act’s redemption seems almost gratuitous in its depiction of the emotional cruelty of his family and community. The conclusion is, thankfully, suitably understated; Scanlen can depict miles of emotional growth in minutes. Movies of this tricky variety often depend on central performance, and in his hands it works most of the time.

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