Faith community faces unwelcome intruder: sex

Jem (Eliza Scanlen, second from left) enjoys expressing her faith through liturgical dance. (Photo by Brian Lannin/courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

Years ago, I was visiting a family of fundamentalist Christians in another state when a group of local feminists held a topless protest. A news crew went out to cover the event, and one of the protesters ended up on the evening newscast (from the neck up) explaining what they were protesting about.

Watching the interview on TV that night, the matriarch of my host family clearly was not impressed by what the woman had to say. “You can tell she just wants attention,” she said dismissively.

The comment left me with the immediate thought: “What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t everybody want attention?” But I quickly realized, “Oh, it’s a fundamentalist thing.” Apparently seeking attention was considered sinful in that culture—especially, I guessed, if you’re a woman.

The incident came rushing back to me after watching The Starling Girl, writer/director Laurel Parmet’s debut film about coming of age in a fundamentalist community. It revolves around Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), a 17-year-old Kentuckian who’s devoted to God and her faith. She especially loves expressing her faith through the liturgical dances she performs at services along with a handful of other girls.

After one such performance, however, her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) undermines her joy by pointing out that she’d immodestly allowed the outline of her bra to show through her dance costume. Later, adding to her daughter’s perceived sins, the mother asks whether Jem dances “for God or for vanity.”

Or, as my long-ago host would have put it, “The girl just wants attention.”

Growing up in a restrictive religious community can be tough, and it becomes even tougher when you’re a teenager whose hormones are awakening urges you’ve been taught to suppress. Jem is critical of a boy who’s been sent away to have the sin beaten out of him after he was caught looking at online porn. But she soon faces challenges of her own.

Her parents want to arrange a courtship and eventual marriage to their pastor’s younger son, Ben (Austin Abrams), an awkward boy who thinks barnyard diarrhea is an appropriate topic for a first date. Jem, though, is more interested in Ben’s older brother, Owen (Lewis Pullman), a future pastor who’s just returned from mission work in Puerto Rico. She’s so interested, in fact, that she engineers excuses to be around him, ignoring the inconvenient fact that he’s married.

As it turns out, Owen’s marriage is not a happy one, and he’s not averse to giving his young admirer the attention she so desperately wants. The result is a situation for which Jem’s upbringing has left her totally unprepared.

Competently acted, and naturalistically written and directed by Parmet, The Starling Girl offers a searing portrait of Jem’s difficult life. Though the filmmaker tries to leave her with a slim ray of hope, it’s less convincing than the film’s indictment of the intolerance and injustice that flourish when religion tries to overrule human nature.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Starling Girl (rated R) opens May 25 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, with wider distribution to follow.