The Starling Girl – Sundance 2023

A still from The Starling Girl by Laurel Parmet, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A teenager struggles within her fundamentalist community in The Starling Girl but things change when she’s drawn to the youth pastor.

If not for its Kentucky setting, I might not have watched The Starling Girl during Sundance. This is more or less because of the fundamentalist aspect. At the end of the day, I am glad that I gave it a chance. I’ll likely end up watching on the big screen when it is time for the theatrical release.

The gist of the film is that Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is seventeen years old and having trouble finding a place in her community. It’s a Christian fundamentalist community. Anyway, things change when Jem starts getting encouragement from youth pastor Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman). Oh yeah, Owen is also in a marriage so everything about their relationship is wrong. However, filmmaker Laurel Parmet finds the right balance in telling the story.

Jem loves to dance but if you know anything about fundamentalist groups, just about anything could lead somebody to sin–including, yes, sexual desires. Parmet’s film explores a number of topics, including empowerment and abuse. It is very clear that Owen is the older person and in a position of power. How does this ultimately play into their relationship? It might not look like abuse if they are consenting but the power dynamics are definitely there. At the end of the day, the film is ultimately a coming-of-age story. The filmmaker draws on her own experiences as well as Patriarchal Christian communities like the one in the film. Women should not have feelings of shame for their own desires and this is something that the film seeks to get across in its message.

Unfortunately, I missed an opportunity to watch the film in theater during Sundance. I ended up watching the film through the Sundance app as it was impossible to watch the press screener with the TV setup in the Airbnb during the festival. As a result, I was able to pause the screen for a number of minutes and take in the Louisville skyline from the I-64 approach downtown as if someone were coming from I-71. I knew the film had been set in rural Kentucky. This does not change the fact that it was a bit of a shock to see the Louisville skyline in the film. If you’re wondering, no, Arleen’s Bar is not real. The exterior of High Horse on Story Avenue is redressed for the film. It was a late addition after using Air Devils Inn on Taylorsville Road for the interior.

The Starling Girl brings nuance to a number of subjects that Laurel Parmet seeks to explore and gets a strong performance from Eliza Scanlen in the process.

CAST: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin Abrams, Wrenn Schmidt

The Starling Girl held its world premiere during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Bleecker Street will release the film later this year. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.