“Dear Lord, thank You for the opportunity to come before You in Your holy presence here today. I hope to glorify You in all that I do. Let it not be me they see. Let it be You.”
Jem Starling means those words as she prepares, with the rest of her dance troupe, to perform for their church. She means them with every atom of her being.
Or, at least, she means to mean them.
But Jem can sometimes get a little … distracted. Sometimes impure thoughts cloud the 17-year-old’s mind and disturb her faith. Sometimes she feels desire inside her—a desire not for a closer communion with the Almighty, but the touch of another. Most of the time, she’s able to push these thoughts away. But late at night, in Kentucky’s hot, humid darkness, she feels almost hungry. Almost—
“Out, Satan, out,” she whispers to herself. She knows it’s wrong to have such thoughts. Such urges. She redoubles her prayers, turns her eyes back to God, to her family, to her church.
Ah, but the church can be a vessel of distraction, too. Even one of unlikely temptation.
Owen and Misty Taylor, the pastor’s son and daughter-in-law, have just returned from extended mission in Puerto Rico. Jem has known Owen for much of her childhood. He taught her youth group, after all. In fact, now that he’s back, Owen’s still teaching it. The 28-year-old is far different from most of the folks she sees at church: He doesn’t talk about God as if he’s hiding behind dry doctrine and black-and-white rules. Owen preaches tolerance. Love. During his first Sunday back, Owen asks his students to lie on the church’s linoleum floor and feel the connection to the Almighty.
“We all share this ground that God gave us,” he says. And while some of Jem’s fellow teens think that Owen might’ve lost a couple of marbles in Puerto Rico, Jem finds his open-handed faith charming. Almost as charming as she finds him.
Soon, she’s looking for ways to spend more time with Owen: a flat tire on her bike. A trip for some fast-food tacos. All harmless, of course. All innocent. Nothing that God wouldn’t approve of.
But late at night, thoughts of God slip away in the dark. Thoughts of Owen float to the surface. And then, in the blackened room she shares with her sister, Jem’s thoughts aren’t so innocent at all. [Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
This is a difficult story to parse into positive and negative terms. The film has plenty of well-meaning people who do hurtful things, and it deals with love and sin and self-discovery and even faith with a certain cynical ambiguity. And even when the film does take a side, some viewers might well disagree (an aspect we’ll unpack a bit more in our spiritual content section).
But Rebecca Starling, Jem’s sister, is a character that both the film and Plugged In can laud for her generosity. When Jem confesses some fairly serious sins in front of the congregation (a confession both formal and somewhat coerced), Rebecca’s the first one to jump out of her pew and give her sister a loving hug, along with earnest forgiveness.
Jem’s parents each have their own weaknesses. But Mom Heidi proves to be a staunch protector of her family, while Dad Paul feels at first like a lovable, laid-back wellspring of humanity in an otherwise strict and rules-focused home. Jem grows to feel a special attachment to Paul, who had plenty of experience in the secular world before he was (as he himself tells us) saved. For a time, he turned his back on plenty of bad habits and became not just a more stable person, but a good influence on his kids. God, Heidi and the church were a catalyst for that change.
The secular world is uncomfortable with both the word, and the concept of, sin. Even many Christians are discomfited by too much bald talk about the condition, worrying that we might come across as judgmental or, worse, hypocritical.
And that’s what makes Starling Girl both compelling and frustrating: This story deals with sin. And how you react to the movie depends, largely, on what you consider sin to be.
From the beginning, we’re made to feel the tension between God, the Church and self. It first presents itself in Jem’s dancing—something she dearly loves to do. But she confesses to Owen that she wonders whether she might enjoy it too much. Whether dancing might be more about what she enjoys than worshiping God. Owen pushes back against that notion. “What, you think God will strike you dead if you enjoy dancing?” he asks. “You’re experiencing joy in His creation.”
That tension is real for many Christians—the push-pull between serving God and embracing and enjoying the gifts that God has given us. But in this case, it seems to lead to another, darker door.
Just one additional spoiler warning here: Jem and Owen embark on an affair. Shortly after it begins, Jem asks Owen if he feels guilty. He tells her that he used to, but not so much with time. “I’ve been praying on it a lot, and I don’t feel like it’s a sin,” he tells her. Jem’s so unlike his wife, Owen tells her. “I want so much for you, and when I’m with you I want so much for me, too. I never felt that with anybody. How could God not want that?”
That’s an attractive notion to Jem, who quickly comes to believe that God wants them to be together—and once their affair is discovered, she tells people just that.
The rest of the church is not so sure.
Jem’s mother is furious when she finds out. When Jem tells her that the affair is part of “God’s plan,” Heidi says that it’s “Satan flapping your tongue. He’s sifted you like wheat.” And she locks Jem out of the house for the evening, after which, Jem spends the night in her pastor’s garage. And Pastor Taylor (who, you’ll remember, is Owen’s father) has a meeting with Jem and her mother to pave a biblical path forward.
By this time, Owen has apparently painted himself as a victim. “He says that Jem brought him to sin,” the pastor says, and “Inhibited his ability to control himself.” While the pastor doesn’t deny that Owen’s at fault, too, the onus is on Jem to repent. And that involves sending her to a rehabilitation facility called King’s Valley. Before her departure, she must confess and apologize to the full church, asking for forgiveness. Owen walks up and offers his.
There’s an interesting counterpoint to Jem’s and Owen’s touchy-feely understanding of faith, and that’s found in Jem’s father, Paul. We learn that he was once a member of a reasonably popular secular band. But he turned away from that life when he was saved. “I didn’t want to be selfish no more,” Paul tells Jem. “Everything was always about me. My songs, my struggles.”
“Do you miss it?” Jem asks.
“When God asks you to give something up, it’s just so you got more room for Him,” he says. But in the moment, it feels like a line he’s heard—not something he believes.
And it goes on. We hear countless references to what it means to deflect attention away from the self and to the Almighty: verses, songs, snippets of dialogue. We hear the Apostle Paul’s famous love passage from 1 Corinthians, for instance, a beautiful series of verses that Jem misappropriates as license for her relationship with Owen.
As you might’ve guessed, Jem’s church is fairly traditional. (When Jem suggests using a modern worship tune as the background for a dance, another dancer says, “Real intense drums. The Elders won’t like it.”) And Owen, pastor’s son or not, returns from his mission trip with “strange” ideas. When he pitches the idea of starting a farm as a missional outreach, his father says, “No need to get all experimental. The Bible’s enough.”
In youth group, after another member of the church confesses his own sin to the congregation, Owen encourages other youth to not “judge him too harshly. Because all of us have done things we’re ashamed of, right?”
We see an altar call, and when the pastor asks the congregation is certain that their sins are forgiven, Jem raises her hand but seems to experience some internal anxiety.
We hear hymns and Bible verses. References are made to Christ’s sacrifice and Satan’s deceptions. Pastor Taylor says that Jem has fallen victim to a “spiritual attack” and tumbled down “a very dark hole.”
It takes two to tango, as they say. And while 17-year-old Jem is blameless in the eyes of the law and the primary culprit in the eyes of the Church, the sexual dynamics here are a bit more nuanced.
Jem is the initial “aggressor,” if you can call it that. This school-age girl with a crush researches Owen’s favorite foods. She flattens her own bicycle tire to finagle a ride. When she notices Owen’s shoe is untied, she doesn’t tell him: She bends down before him to tie it.
But when Jem’s feelings for Owen are obvious, it’s Owen who truly initiates the affair. They kiss during a chance encounter at the church. Owen later gives Jem a note, asking her to meet him at midnight. She sneaks out of the house and goes, and the two have sex in Owen’s vehicle.
There’s no nudity, but we do see a great deal of Jem’s leg and watch as Owen unbuckles and undoes his pants. Movements and such follow, and the camera stays in the car until they’re done.
We see the two engaged in illicit intimacies elsewhere, and Jem spends a short scene without a shirt (but with a bra). We see them in bed or on a couch together on occasion, but there’s never any explicit nudity.
Also important to note: Jem is technically being “courted” by Ben Taylor, Owen’s younger brother. The match comes with the tang of an arranged marriage, with Jem’s mom saying that it’s God’s will that their family and the Pastor’s family grow closer together. Jem is not a fan of this courtship at all, but she seems to have little choice. The time Jem and Ben share is both chaste and awkward.
Jem appears to engage in masturbation once, in the bathroom (we see her from the shoulders up). She stops herself in another scene. Jem’s Christian dance troupe serves as a substitutionary lens through which the movie examines both Jem’s individuality and her sexuality. Ben first seems to notice Jem when she dances, and a couple of men discuss how lovely she is to watch. After one performance, the pastor’s wife gently scolds Jem because her bra was visible through her dress during the performance. And as another woman, Owen’s wife, Misty, watches Jem’s latest choreography for an upcoming performance, she tells Jem that they’ll have to perform without revealing any leg. (Jem sullenly agrees.)
We see a naked man sit on a bed (though nothing critical is shown, and the scene itself isn’t in a sexual context). A teen boy returns from King’s Valley and offers a contrite apology to the church for his actions. We learn the apology and the trip to King’s Valley were necessitated after the boy was caught looking at porn on his father’s computer.
A father slaps his daughter. A woman punches a man. Someone nearly drowns another character. We hear about a suicide. Someone else appears to attempt it, and the person falls into an apparent coma as a result.
We hear one f-word—though you can barely make it out. Another three or four s-words are uttered. God’s name is misused once.
Paul is apparently a recovering alcoholic. And after receiving a massive bit of bad news, he falls back into his old habits. He begins to drink heavily, and it impacts every aspect of his life. We get a glimpse of him passed out on a bed. He lies in the grass in another scene, barely able to get up. He loses his job and drinks even more—a self-destructive cycle that only deepens.
The family dynamics surrounding Paul’s drinking are interesting, too. Heidi seems inclined to minimize it or even ignore it, at least to her children. Jem only mentions it as an awful secret—one, the movie suggests, she’s all too familiar with.
Heidi, Jem’s mom, takes prescription medication for an unnamed medical issue.
Lies and deceptions are, obviously, a huge part of this story. And Owen and Jem go to extreme, predictable lengths to keep their affair a secret. Jem—who, remember, is underage—also becomes pretty disobedient to her parents.
Someone vomits on the floor and passes out. We hear someone throw up into a toilet and complain of her ailment. Another kid, we hear, vomits off screen.
Jem keys Misty’s car. She steals someone else’s.
Heidi is very concerned with keeping up appearances within the church. When disaster strikes the family, she tells Jem to take the rest of the kids to a cookout and “pretend that everything’s normal.”
Historically in Christian art, the starling is sometimes used as a symbol of resurrection and new beginnings. The makers of Starling Girl suggest that that’s what Jem is ultimately seeking: a new beginning. New life in a church that’s killed her spirit. Starling Girl star Eliza Scanlen told IndieWire:
“Laurel [director Laurel Parmet] was exploring a moral gray area, and the only way that she could do that was to completely immerse the audience in Jem’s perspective. They can experience with Jem her confusion and her guilt, and how she oscillates between her desire for Owen and her desire to be her own person and free from shame and the restriction that she feels as a result of being in this community.”
It’s telling, though, that neither Scanlen nor the movie itself seems to take the church’s point of view seriously.
Starling Girl wants to give us a coming-of-age story, one in which a teen pries herself from beneath the thumb of rigid religiosity. And certainly, some of the movie’s criticisms have merit. Legalism can be crushing. The Church has not always handled sexual sin well or even-handedly. We believers can be all too guilty of practicing superficial spirituality and losing sight of the love and hope that our faith seeks to bring to everyone.
But Jem is no beacon of reason, as the movie itself acknowledges. She is, legally, a child, and very often she acts like it. At the end of the film (and forgive me, another massive spoiler), Jem runs away with Owen—a man 11 years her senior and, by Kentucky law, guilty of statutory rape—then steals his car to take a road trip to Memphis, where her father used to play music.
The movie closes with her dancing in the bar where her father played—a father who turned his back on his own selfishness and turned toward the church. A father who rejected his selfish behavior to get a job and raise his kids before, tragically, succumbing to self-destruction again.
And it’s the self-destruction, not the selflessness, that Jem wants to emulate. She dances just as she wants to do: a stolen car in the parking lot, no means of support, a jilted lover stranded at a Kentucky motel, a betrayed family back home.
Starling Girl is a well-written and well-acted, an exceptionally nuanced, provocative film. But it’s deeply problematic on both a superficial and spiritual level. And while its main character seeks a resurrection of sorts, instead she wanders off into her own self-made myths.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.