When you hear the film’s premise, you might assume, “lecherous youth pastor seduces innocent teen,” but that’s not quite the case here. Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling has had a crush on a youth pastor named Owen for a while. He and his wife have just returned from a mission to Puerto Rico that lasted a year, and Jem is deliriously happy to see him again. He has had ideas about his role in the church and wants to make changes, including a gardening project, but his father, the head pastor, ignores his suggestions and dismisses his ideas. Over the following weeks, Jem tries to spend plenty of time at the church, hoping to see Owen. He seems aware of her crush and tries to redirect her attention gently. Finally, her persistence pays off, and he succumbs to her attention, and they become secret lovers.

Jem prays to God a lot. She knows what they are doing is forbidden but believes it will be okay with God because they are meant for each other and can serve God in their new life; She also expects Owen to leave his wife. Owen is in an arranged marriage. He had no say in who he would marry. His father made that decision, so Owen has been unhappy with the union.

Soon the affair is made public, but Owen does not stand up for Jem; all the blame falls on her, and she has to confess her sin publicly in church. Meanwhile, Jem’s father, Paul (Jimmi Simpson), has problems. He was a musician and, in his former life, had a drug problem, he has used strict adherence to the evangelical church and the help of his wife to overcome that problem, but all the controversy with Jem has caused him to back-slide. We can see that the closed society Jem has grown up in has severely limited her ability to become a fully functioning adult.

This movie has a compelling story and follows a different route than this subject matter usually follows. Eliza Scanlen stars as Gem; she is known for the HBO series Sharp Objects and does a credible job here. Lewis Pullman, the son of actor Bill Pullman can show the range his character feels in his circumstances. Jimmi Simpson is excellent here; you wish his part were more significant.

The Starling Girl is director Laurel Parmer’s first feature film after several shorts, and it displays a lot of talent and some self-assured writing on her part.

Director and Writer; Laurel Parmet

Starring: Eliza Scanlen as Gem Starling

              Jimmi Simpson as Paul Starling

              Lewis Pullman as Qwen Taylor

              Kyle Secor as Pastor Taylor

              Wrenn Schmidt as Heidi Starling

              Austin Abrams as Ben Taylor

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