The Starling Girl (2023): Faith is an enigmatic force. It can drive people to undertake unprecedented acts of courage and benevolence. On the other hand, it can also make them commit unspeakable acts of terror and disdain. The world sometimes rests between these extremes in a balance. But often, the scale is tipped off in the more oppressive direction.

Doubt is also a crucial part of this tightly built machinery. This crisis of faith and its inherent struggles have formed the backbone of many stories – “Doubt,” “Mean Streets,” “Silence,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and many more. It has been a hallmark of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. But the human tendency, and the struggle, to believe in something larger than themselves to find solace and comfort is just one aspect.

Religion and its so-called “purveyors” have followed doctrines deeply entrenched in patriarchy. It has led to a loss of women’s bodily autonomy, still disputed, as exemplified by the recent US Supreme Court hearing on abortion rights. ‘The Starling Girl’, directed by Laurel Parmet, deals with such temptations of the forbidden fruit, which punishes people for natural deeds.

Modern-day conversations are steering towards openly talking about female orgasms and self-pleasure. But it is still countered by the traditional value system created by organized religion. Many such sects, as depicted in the film, still punish women for exercising free will over their amorous desires. Love is confined by the boundaries set up by the preachers and interpreters who decide who to love and how to love.

In the following article, I will analyze the themes and dissect the ending of this film.

The Starling Girl (2023) Plot Summary & Movie synopsis :

Jemma Starling is a seventeen-year girl who lives in a Christian fundamentalist community with her four siblings and her parents. She performs a God-worshipping dance with a troupe under the strict supervision of Mrs Baker. At one such performance, Mrs. Taylor schools her on appropriate dressing when her bra strap becomes visible in her white dress. Sobbing, she goes out, where Owen Taylor, the new youth group pastor, smokes a cigarette near the wall. He has recently returned from Puerto Rico and is a topic of interest among young kids. Later, she is about to masturbate at night when she sees her sister watching and stops. She dismisses her action by calling it a work of Satan.

They visit the reinstating of a young boy, sent to King’s Valley for watching porn on his computer. Owen teaches them a new method of worshipping by lying on the ground. It does not go well with them, but Jemma is quite smitten by him. She starts meeting Owen, first on the pretext of leading the troupe’s choreography in the absence of Mrs. Becker’ then, when she purposefully flattens her tyre so that he would drop her home in his car. However, she starts questioning her self-serving attitude and admonishes herself for having sinful thoughts. Later, she agrees to be courted by Owen’s younger brother, Ben, shedding her initial reluctance.

But soon, she finds out they have no connection. On a night out with his family, Owen goes into the forest to get wood for the fire. She follows him, and they share an awkward moment of intimacy. A friend of her father, a previous band member, passes away, and she finds him drinking at night as he reminisces about his band. At practice, the other girls make fun of her behind her back. It distresses her, and she goes to church at night. Owen arrives there and offers her some noodles. They discuss her dad and their definition of God’s love and kiss when the phone rings. She leaves for her home as her mother would be worried.

At the dance practice, Owen slips a piece of paper into her hand, asking her to meet him at midnight. At night, she stealthily creeps out of the room and reaches his car. They make love after initial hesitation, and afterwards, she goes to the lake to wash herself up. She feels guilty about succumbing to her temptation. Owen reassures her they did nothing wrong as he never found love in his marriage, and being with her felt right. She agrees that it does not feel like sinning, and both embrace each other.

The Starling Girl (2023): Movie Ending, Explained & Themes Analyzed

They start meeting each other secretly. Owen gifts Jemma a phone to directly communicate over texts and calls. Owen appoints his wife Misty as a supervisor of her dance troupe. Her suggestions anger Jemma, and she scratches her car in retaliation. When she goes to Owen’s home, he advises her not to perform such activities as it could get them caught. Suddenly, Misty arrives, and she has to hide in the bathroom. Owen tells her to stay there until he comes. After several hours of waiting, she slips out of the bathroom when her mother and siblings knock at the door. Hurriedly, she climbs out of the window, where her sister Becca spots her. They make eye contact, and Jemma rushes back home.

Her dad admonishes Jemma for her self-centered behavior and prohibits her from dancing in the troupe. When she retaliates by referring to his inebriated state, he slaps her. At night, she requests Becca to keep her secret by claiming that God warranted their relationship. The next day, she tells Owen that Becca knows and it’s time to reveal it to everyone. This rattles Owen, and he asks her not to meet him for a few days. Jemma requests him not to do this, unwillingly steps out of the car, and sobs in the corner. Her father apologizes to her for his earlier behavior while she is half-asleep.

At night he has a stroke and is taken to a hospital. She wakes up to discover he is in a coma due to an overdose of sleeping pills. Her mother deliberately refuses to acknowledge it as a suicide attempt and strictly tells her to follow suit. At a family gathering, she openly argues with Owen, who tries to avoid her. Angry, she rushes to the lake nearby, and Ben follows her too. When he does not listen to her request to leave her alone, she purposefully holds him underwater till he starts gasping. When she reaches home, her mother questions her about her relationship with Owen. Then, she lashes out at her, scolding her for letting Satan in and having sex with Owen. Jemma asserts God meant them to be together, angering her mother even further.

She wakes up in Owen’s father’s house. He stresses the gravity of the situation and orders her to repent for her sins. He slyly puts all the blame on her and makes his son appear a victim of her lustful advances. She agrees to repent but protests going to King’s Valley. At her confession in the church, Owen is also present and comes to forgive her, which makes her even more heartbroken. When she is about to leave for King’s Valley, Owen arrives to take her with him to Puerto Rico. Her mother sees Owen and slaps him, ordering him to stay away from her daughter. But she takes her bag and jumps into his car.

They stay at a motel, where he tells her he is selling the car the following day, before going. Jemma prays to the Lord to make her heart content and vanish all her anxiety. At night, she sneaks out in his car and drives to a bar where her father performed with his band. She plays his song and, after a while, starts dancing.

Why did Jemma agree to Ben’s courtship?

Jemma had feelings for Ben’s older brother, Owen, who was married. She believed she was sinning by giving in to lustful thoughts and acting to serve herself rather than God. Her feelings clashed with the ideals etched in her mind. To resolve this conflict and also to prevent herself from sinning, she agreed to her family’s proposal of Ben’s courtship.

Why was Jemma’s father disturbed by his friend’s death?

Jemma’s father used to run a band in his youth. His friend who committed suicide was one of his bandmates. He loved music and had to give it up to prevent himself from sinning by becoming an alcoholic. The death of his friend reminded him of his good old days, which he had to suppress to serve God by being a family man. However, his death disturbs him mentally, and he resorts to drinking to console himself.

Why did Owen get involved with Jemma?

Owen was married through the same process of courtship Jemma was going through. He did not believe he shared any sort of connection with his wife, Misty. They were just carrying out the duties of a husband and wife as they were supposed to. But with Jemma, he felt a truly authentic connection. He could be himself with her, and she could see him as he was – without any pretension.

The Starling Girl (2023) Movie Themes Analysed :

The conflict between morality created by faith and our primal instincts:

The Starling Girl (2023): Movie Ending, Explained & Themes Analyzed

Jemma feels that sexual desire is the work of the devil. We see the people deeply entrenched in moral policing, like the woman instructing Jemma to hide her visible bra strap. These moral standards and taboo-inducing behavior often lead to a troubling dichotomy. Attraction is an innate impulse that cannot be contained by artificially created moral strictures. It finds an outlet no matter how much we try to put a lid on it. Owen and Jemma do not feel there is anything wrong with their relationship. All the others talk about God’s love, but when people act on this feeling, they are condemned by society for not aligning with their prescribed notions of love and its expression. Jemma continues believing in God even after getting disapproval from her mother for her actions.

Her definition of God is not restricted by society’s rigid and traditional perception of it. Faith is not something that can be prescribed by a certain group of people. An individual decides to understand and accept the spectrum of its doctrines. Moral codes shift across centuries, and primal instincts cannot be tamed by declaring them evil. On the contrary, such enclosures infuriate those burning desires to explode and wreak havoc.

Limited Bodily Autonomy of Women:

Jemma feels ashamed of having a crush on Owen. When she is about to masturbate, her sister wakes up, and she stops midway, accusing her of being taken over by Satan. Organized religion has always forced women to bear the most damage. Jemma initially follows that lineage but somehow gathers the courage to rebel against the oppressive system. The shame she experiences in masturbating and even after her first sexual encounter, like she has done something wrong, is a universal phenomenon. Natural feelings are equated to Satan, which results in banishment for acting on these impulses. The community has more control over her body and what it’s supposed to do and feel than herself.

Religious Oppression:

Owen and Jem’s father suffer from the oppressive nature of this community’s orthodox reading of Christian teachings. Owen is stuck in a loveless marriage as he cannot divorce. He was also given a limited courtship period to decide his spouse. Jem’s father had to leave his band and settle into domestic life, crushing him from the inside. He had to give up the things he cherished in his youth, as they were labeled “self-serving” endeavors which deviated him from God. His inner frustration makes him resort to alcohol once again to ameliorate his pain, eventually leading to a suicide attempt. Owen also decides to run away with Jemma once he understands it’s the only way out of his precarious position.

The Starling Girl (2023) Movie Ending, Explained :

Why did Owen lie to his father about their relationship?

Since Owen and Jemma’s relationship became known to their family members, Owen feared it would upend their lives. He was scared of his father and did not want to provoke him with the truth. So he lied that Jemma seduced him, making him lose his control.

Why did Jemma run away with Owen to Puerto Rico?

Jemma was tired of explaining that their love was not against God. The community members held her responsible for her sinful actions and declared her guilty of letting Satan in. She wanted to escape this close-minded, conservative embankment of biting, unforgiving sharks. So she decided to run away with Owen to lead a life of freedom and autonomy.

Why did Jemma go to Arleen’s?

Even after running away with Owen, as she wished, she felt restless and discontented. She prayed to God to help her quieten her heart. But the gravity of her actions was slowly sinking in. She may never meet her parents, especially her comatose father. The separation from her roots and her earlier relations made her disgruntled. It was an unexpected outcome,  which perplexed her, as she had hoped everything would settle once she got together with Owen.

After listening to her father’s song, she decides to leave for Arleen’s – the place her dad visited a lot to play his music. Seeing his spirit of freedom stifled by the surroundings, she goes there to experience that freedom herself. It is ambiguous as to what path she will take from hereon. She just rejoices in dancing to funky music without anyone constantly monitoring her moves for profanity. Living in the moment, she exercises complete autonomy over her body, letting it swing and shake freely without any qualms.

Read More: 10 Great Movies about Making a Fresh Start


The Starling Girl (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia
The Starling Girl (2023) Movie Cast: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams, Jimmi Simpson
The Starling Girl (2023) Movie Other Details: Genre – Drama, Runtime – 1h 56m
Where to watch The Starling Girl

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