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Sundance 2023 Review: The Starling Girl – “An interesting character study”

A sexual awakening and a curiosity that goes beyond rigid piety of the fundamentalist Christian community which is her home, 17-year-old Jem Starling finds a kindred spirit in the youth pastor recently returned from a retreat in Central America.

Leading a church dance group is teenage Jem Starling who is deemed worthy of marriage courtship, criticized for lacking discretion in her attire and has started to explore sexual gratification through masturbation.  When the adult responsible for the dance group leaves Jem seeks permission to take over the leadership role from the recently returned youth pastor from a trip to Central America which has taught him some unconventional methods.  The two find companionship with each other which evolves into them becoming lovers.

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Everything rests on the shoulders of Eliza Scanlen who radiates youthful enthusiasm and charm as Jen Starling and is the reason to watch The Starling GirlLewis Pullman has a rugged Chris Cooper appeal as the liberal-minded paster Owen Taylor while Wrenn Schmidt and Jimmi Simpson convincingly play the roles of Jen’s parents with the former driven by traditionalism while the latter has less restricted view towards life.  The cinematography takes advantage of the landscape which has a heavenly and lush look like when Jen is riding her bicycle down the country road that cuts through a forest.

Another movie that comes to mind is Holler which had the equally compelling Jessica Barden in the lead role.  Both female protagonists find themselves in repressive environments that threaten to waste their vast potential and go on a path of discovery that will either allow them to break free or give into conformity.  I do not know if this coming-of-age tale brings anything new to the genre outside of being an interesting character study aided in a major way by the performance of Scanlen.

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival takes place January 19–29, 2023, in person and online, and for more information visit

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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