“The Starling Girl” is, at its heart, a visceral reminder of what it’s like to grow up as a girl in strict religious environments. It’s also a thorough picture of grievances about fundamentalist and evangelical Christian circles in two recent docuseries.
It’s the coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Jem Starling, a dancer at a fundamentalist church in rural Kentucky. She’s a shining member of her church’s dance troupe, the oldest of her siblings and appropriately well behaved, if headstrong and something of a dreamer.
The movie starts out on a memorable note: a dance, a church potluck and Jem being pulled to a private corner by the preacher’s wife and her mother to be chastised about her outfit. The lining of Jem’s bra is visible through her shirt, and it’s a concern that her immodesty may cause the men to stumble. She’s given a sweater to cover up and is immensely apologetic about her offense. She feels — because she’s told so — that she’s let everyone down, that she’s ruined the afternoon, that she’s a filthy sinner. She retreats outside to cry, body shaking with sobs and nose dripping with snot.
It’s a setup of the movie’s most important focus, which is the ways that purity culture affects individuals within the church and religious communities at large. “The Starling Girl” does so in the context of fundamentalism specifically, but as with any cinematic story, the narrative applies further.
It’s an alarming reflection of some of the real life harms depicted in “Shiny Happy People,” the docuseries about the Duggar family and Institute in Basic Life Principles, the organization with which they’re intertwined. It’s even telling of the mindset of churches on the opposite end of the cultural spectrum and offers insight into the downfall of Hillsong Church, detailed in news stories from the past several months and the docuseries “The Secrets of Hillsong.”
All three are parts of a current trend of questioning the church and determining that so many people have been driven away by hypocritical teachings that are often used to write off real harm.
In the middle of her breakdown, Jem is reacquainted with Owen Taylor, the eldest son of the pastor, smoking a cigarette in private. They share a secret from the start: him, her shame, her, his sin. He’s the youth pastor, married in his mid-20s and recently returned from a mission trip to Puerto Rico. He’s handsome, too.
He and Jem connect over their carefree spirits and unconventional views of God. Their friendship blossoms, but it’s difficult to watch. She admires him, makes excuses to spend time with him and maybe even has a crush on him. He unabashedly flirts with her, unleashes his frustrations about his marriage and family on her and takes advantage of her.
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