‘The Starling Girl’ Review: As the Spirit Moves

In the fundamentalist Christian enclave where “The Starling Girl” takes place, Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) is a sensitive 17-year-old who nonetheless cannot escape the idea that she is prone to selfishness.

The source of that particular reproach is often the teenager’s intransigent mother, Heidi (Wrenn Schmidt), but beyond parental scolding, a pietistic attitude hangs over this insular Kentucky hamlet like a muggy summer heat wave. Jem even acts as her own castigator, murmuring “out, Satan!” when she feels the urge to masturbate.

Jem’s burgeoning libido coincides with the homecoming of Owen (Lewis Pullman), a stoic 28-year-old who returns from a missionary trip to become Jem’s youth pastor. Before long, Jem is nursing a crush on the worldly stud, and Owen, miserable in his marriage and wrestling with conservative Christian dogma, reciprocates her flirtation to commence a clandestine affair.

In her debut feature, the writer-director Laurel Parmet uses her rigidly religious setting to home in on the moral anxieties of a young woman socialized to feel shame about vanity, sexuality and pleasure. The drama seems to pose the question: How do you come of age when you are told that one’s love for life should never outweigh one’s fidelity to an outside authority — be it God, community or a self-serving older boyfriend?

A tender tale, “The Starling Girl” twirls through a spate of clichés — many surround Jem’s relationship to her alcoholic father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson) — but sticks the landing thanks to Parmet’s rapt attention to the shifting desires of her central character.

The Starling Girl
Rated R. Sins of the flesh. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.

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