Movies screened at the Sundance Film Festival often portray fundamentalist Christians as cult-like zealots. However, “The Starling Girl” is a refreshing change as it offers a more nuanced perspective on conservative Christianity in a small Kentucky town. Directed by Laurel Parmet, the film follows the story of Jem Starling, a 17-year-old religious teen who questions her faith after developing a crush on her youth pastor.
Growing Up in a Strict Christian Environment:
Jem Starling lives in a small Kentucky town where conservative Christian values are strictly enforced. Her parents, who are devout Christians, are pressuring her to court a fellow parishioner named Ben, who is not someone Jem is interested in. Jem has never questioned her faith until she begins to feel restricted by the patriarchal society in which she is raised. In an early scene, Jem’s brassiere is visible through her blouse after a church dance performance, and Ben’s mother approaches her to express her concern. Jem feels ashamed and self-conscious, which serves as a reminder of her newfound power.
Discovering Her Sexuality:
Jem’s interest in her youth pastor, Owen, is the catalyst for her questioning her faith. Owen is a bit of a rebel, and Jem finds him irresistible. After deflating her bicycle tire, Jem gets a ride from Owen, and they end up making out. Despite Owen being married with a pregnant wife, he finds Jem’s youth and innocence attractive. Parmet avoids emphasizing the erotic dimension of their relationship and instead focuses on the transgressive nature of Jem’s discovery of her sexuality. Jem is too naive to recognize that her connection to Owen is not healthy or sustainable, but the affair breaks the spell of her upbringing and challenges her obedient childhood.
The Consequences of Defying Tradition:
While Jem’s affair liberates her, it also comes with consequences. She is discovered and faces the possibility of being sent away to King’s Valley, a disciplinary camp for those who stray from the church’s teachings. The film portrays the repressive nature of Jem’s conservative Christian community and the suffering of its children. While the ultra-conservative system may work for some adults, it may not be the right fit for Jem and others like her.
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Through Jem’s journey, “The Starling Girl” offers a nuanced look at conservative Christianity in a small-town American community. Parmet invites the audience to observe the transgressive nature of discovering one’s sexuality and the difficulties of breaking away from a repressive environment. Ultimately, Jem’s story serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s necessary to break free from the flock and fly the nest.