If you’re interested in films about young women wrestling with religion and growing up, written and directed by women, that are currently in theaters, you are in the right place!
First, The Starling Girl, written and directed by Laurel Parmet in her directorial debut, centers on Jem (Eliza Scanlen), a seventeen-year-old girl living in rural Kentucky in a fundamentalist Christian household. As things start to rapidly shift around her–her parents force her to begin courting a boy she doesn’t care about, her beloved dance troupe risks falling apart, and her dad has a depressive spiral–she finds refuge in her more worldly (and married) youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), and they soon begin an affair.
What struck me most about The Starling Girl is how authentic it feels. I did not grow up in a fundamentalist Christian household or a church like the one depicted here, but I did grow up in a small church, in a believing household, and I’m a Christian to this day and work in ministry to young adults. I’m well-versed in the way church people talk, the “Christanese” that can seem foreign to outsiders, and the way church social hierarchies and dynamics work. And, as a movie fan, I’m familiar with the ways movies that try to depict religion or these contexts often don’t understand them and create parody or caricature. But to Parmet’s credit, this film rings very true and is startlingly accurate in its language, its depiction of this kind of church, and the way religious communities often handle scandal. It does so without demonizing or villainizing the characters, instead giving nuance to all sides. It’s quietly observational, as much as a fictional film can be, and the point of the movie is to get you into Jem’s headspace and to understand her, not to make sweeping statements about Christianity or religious communities.
Perhaps one of the biggest (possibly unintentional) accomplishments of the film is how, through Jem, we feel and understand what it is like to live under purity culture. “Purity culture” is a loaded term, but what I mean most simply by that is this: purity culture is a distinct set of values concerning sexuality, including modesty, ideas around marriage, and “proper” femininity (and masculinity). Some of these ideas come from the Bible, some don’t, and some take biblical principles and deeply distort them.
There are elements of purity culture throughout Christian history, but our modern idea of purity culture comes from a particular evangelical movement that peaked in the 1990s with books like Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, with particular community rituals and signifiers like purity rings and courtship. This movement was (and is) so prominent in American evangelicalism that even if you haven’t directly been a part of a church that taught purity culture, I don’t think any evangelical Christian today is untouched by those attitudes. And The Starling Girl depicts the worst outcomes of purity culture. Jem is constantly warned against leading men to sin, asked if she’s been overcome by Satan whenever she expresses desires, is pushed into a courtship with a boy she doesn’t know or like, and is completely unable to even acknowledge her budding sexuality without immediate condemnation or shame. And when the affair is found out, teenage Jem is publically humiliated and blamed, not Owen, the grown, married man in authority.
Ultimately, the tragedy of The Starling Girl is the common issue of purity culture, which is that while everyone is so focused on Jem’s behavior, no one really cares about her heart. She is constantly policed and suffocated by people watching and correcting her every move and slip-up, anticipating a possible impure thought or attitude. But despite all this surveillance, no one actually tries to know Jem’s heart. They don’t see her carrying the weight of her family’s brokenness, or her love of dance and creativity and her desire for some honest self-expression, or her grappling with her sexuality. They want her to behave right but do not actually want to know her or meet her where she is. No wonder then when Owen comes and seems to actually care, even in small, shallow ways, about her thoughts and dreams, she’s drawn to him. And when managing the exposure of the affair, the adults in Jem’s life aren’t primarily concerned with whether she is wanting to be genuinely repentant and obedient to God. They’re concerned about how the affair looks and how it is seen in the church. No one wants to understand Jem’s reality, they just want her to act correctly. We see that illustrated pointedly in Jem’s family. Her mother makes her daughters hide her father’s relapse and depressive spiral in order to look good on the outside. That’s the tragedy and warning of The Startling Girl: how doctrine, when wielded as a weapon, is suffocating and destructive.
While The Starling Girl is decidedly for older audiences (particularly fans of small, intimate character dramas), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig) is more of a crowd-pleaser for a younger audience. Margaret is the perfect movie (depending on maturity level) for a preteen girl, or if you grew up with the Judy Blume novel, or are a parent of a teenage girl (and if you are a parent of a teenage girl, also watch Eighth Grade!)
Margaret is ultimately an optimistic look at puberty and a joyful portrayal of girlhood. It takes the characters and their struggles seriously, but has a light touch. It handles the book’s iconic (or infamous, to the many who have tried to censor it) scenes of Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) and her friend’s attempts to increase their bust, or get their periods, all in a funny way without making fun of the characters themselves. The film shows Margaret struggling with her body, sense of self, relationships, and views on religion, but her loving family and friends help her through it.
A unique aspect of the film is the praying monologues we hear from Margaret as she tries to figure out her faith. In these prayers, we get a good picture of Margaret’s internal conception of God, of her spiritual inner life. We understand how she relates to God, even when she’s not sure he’s listening. She conceives of him as a real person, someone who is there, someone with whom she has a relationship. I found that very touching. It’s a story that doesn’t ultimately choose a side in Margaret’s dilemma of being Jewish like her father or Christian like her mother (or neither), but it does say that she is honestly speaking and praying to someone she thinks is real. Margaret’s prayers and inner dialogue are messy, but they’re earnest, and that’s a perfect encapsulation of the film.
We rarely get movies about religion where a character’s spirituality is taken seriously. We get even fewer that aren’t either firmly with an evangelistic agenda or seeking to caricature and condemn. I think both of these films, in addition to being well crafted and having strong ensembles (Margaret especially has a wonderful young cast and a radiant Rachel McAdams), are thoughtful movies about faith that are worth seeing.