Australian actress Eliza Scanlen has had an impressive few years, giving numerous extraordinary performances since her big break in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women. Thank goodness she has a commanding screen presence because her new Sundance drama, The Starling Girl, would have fallen apart if it weren’t for her turn.
The film follows a teenage girl in a fundamentalist Christian community who begins to experience new feelings when the alluring youth pastor returns to town. Like so many movies that play Sundance, this is fundamentally a coming-of-age film, but there are some much darker things brewing beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, even though Parmet clearly intends The Starling Girl to be a dissection of the fundamentalist Christian community in which it is set, what we see largely feels like a caricature. The dialogue feels exaggerated and stereotypical, and while there are some moments that more closely resemble honesty, the movie doesn’t seem interested in truly exploring the flaws of organized religion.
Honestly, it feels like we should have reached a point where we don’t need to see more of these forbidden love movies about age gap relationships by now. The film doesn’t quite romanticize the relationship, but Parmet hardly engages with the material enough for it to be an intriguing exploration of these themes.
In addition to this core storyline, which will likely leave viewers with a sour taste in their mouths, The Starling Girl has a plethora of underdeveloped subplots. One thread exploring the protagonist’s relationship with her addict father shows a lot of potential but feels tacked on. Another thread about her dreams of pursuing a dance career is completely stagnant.
Still, regardless of the characters leaving something to be desired, the cast manages to hold the movie together. Scanlen is pretty exceptional, delivering a performance that is absolutely captivating even though it is weighed down by the convention of the genre. Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick) also gives a strong turn — charming but with snake-like undercurrents.
The film further shines on a technical level, with a stylistic approach that almost creates an alternate world of this religious community. Although it’s gorgeous to look at, opting for this feeling of surrealism was perhaps a mistake on the part of Parmet, as it draws the viewer out of any sort of verisimilitude this commentary on religion could have had.
The Starling Girl lives or dies on whether the viewer appreciates its lead’s performance, and Eliza Scanlen is such a strong actress that she pulls it off. Laurel Parmet’s script has some intriguing ideas, but it is rather underdeveloped in a way that will make the movie mostly ineffective and unmoving.The Starling Girl is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.