As Facebook has long advised, relationships can be complicated — not least when culture and religion clash with sexual and gender expression, as is the case in two new films opening this weekend.
The Starling Girl (opening on Friday, May 19, at San Francisco’s AMC Kabuki 8) is an exemplary first feature from writer-director Laurel Parmet. Set in rural Kentucky, it’s the story of 17-year-old Jem Starling (outstanding Aussie youngster Eliza Scanlen), a devout Christian and enthusiastic participant in her evangelical church’s dance troupe.
Raised by a strict mother (Wrenn Schmidt) and a once wayward but now saved father (Jimmi Simpson), Jem is a good girl who knows naught of the world’s wicked ways. When handsome youth pastor Owen (Kurt Russell lookalike Lewis Pullman) returns from a missionary trip to Puerto Rico, however, she begins to realize there may be more to life than worship and prayer.
Parmet’s screenplay avoids painting her film’s characters as black and white heroes or villains. Mom may be strict, but she truly loves her daughter; Dad may fall off the wagon every now and again, but he never promised to be perfect; though turning a blind eye to the age and power differences lending him the upper hand, Owen seems to truly care for Jem. As for the Starling girl, she’s a confused teenager in the throes of first love who — despite the protestations of her mother and of the church’s senior pastor (Kyle Secor) — is convinced God wants her to be with Owen.
Parmet also takes a nuanced approach to her characters’ religious beliefs: rather than depicting them as fire and brimstone caricatures, they’re believable, fallible human beings struggling to avoid sin. Come December, this thoughtful piece of storytelling will rank high on your humble scribe’s favorite films of 2023 list.
Joyland (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater this Friday) is a Pakistani drama about Haider (Ali Junejo), a young husband struggling with the weight of family expectations. Not only does Haider “allow” his wife to work, he also has a job as a backup dancer for transsexual performer Biba (Alina Khan) — two things that don’t sit well with his hidebound middle-class family.
Though Junejo is ostensibly the star of the film (and his character, the sun around which the film’s drama revolves), I was more impressed by the performance of Rasti Farooq as Haider’s spouse Mumtaz. Though Mumtaz’s income helps support the family, her employment rankles both Haider’s elder brother Saleem (Sameer Sohail) and traditional father (big and small screen veteran Salmaan Peerzada, perhaps best remembered for his recurring role in the popular British hospital drama Emergency Ward 10). While Junejo’s puppy dog eyes are appealing, it’s Farooq’s lively presence that burns most brightly on screen.
My only reservations about Joyland revolve around its double-pronged narrative, which draws parallels between the challenges facing Biba, an openly transsexual woman in a conservative culture, and the struggles of Haider, a man trying to live within the bounds of a traditional Pakistani society that sees him as insufficiently masculine. Neither story is given quite enough room to breathe. Nonetheless this is a well made and well acted feature that reportedly drew an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes in 2022.