‘The Starling Girl’ Ending, Explained: What Did Jem Ultimately Choose?


Centered around a teenage girl born in a fundamentalist Christian community, The Starling Girl, directed by Laurel Parmet, is a coming-of-age drama that captures the constant moral conflict and judgment that a teenager in a religious community is subjected to. The fear of making the wrong choice, offending the higher power, and giving way to sinful ideas often overwhelmed Jem Starling. As a seventeen-year-old, Jem enjoyed dancing, but she was afraid of crossing the line between using God’s creation to praise him and enjoying dance to the extent of vanity. She started to feel all the more conflicted as lustful thoughts clouded her mind at night. Her parents had already started making plans for her future, and even though marriage was something Jem had always dreamed about, there was someone who kept her distracted from performing her holy duty.

Spoilers Alert

‘The Starling Girl’ Plot Summary: What Happens In The Film?

Ben Taylor wanted to court Jem, and he had a discussion about it with her parents. Paul and Heidi were more than happy about the match and hoped that Jem would carry out her duty. But Jem had her eyes on Ben’s elder brother, Owen Taylor. Owen had recently returned from a Puerto Rican mission, and his thoughts and ideas had evolved over time. He had developed a liking for smoking, though he kept it a secret. Jem had seen him sneak out of the church for a quick smoke, and she kept his secret safe with her. Owen was a 28-year-old married man and the new youth pastor of the church. His method of teaching was unconventional, and Jem enjoyed his approach. She was physically attracted to him, but she was afraid that it was Satan trying to deviate her from the right path.

While Jem knew her feelings for Owen were unspeakable, she found the perfect reason to talk to him personally. To perform at the Labor Day function, the dance troupe needed an instructor. Jem convinced Owen to allow the troupe to self-choreograph, provided they got approval from an elder member. Jem tied Owen’s shoelace before leaving and could feel the butterflies in her stomach while returning home. Unlike most elders, Owen understood her and showed trust in her. The conversation marked the beginning of her friendship with Owen. After returning home, she found her father in his room in a distressed condition. He had taken to drinking again after he learned that his friend had passed away. Paul used to be a musician before he got cleansed, but there were days when the life of suppression overwhelmed him. We do not know the kind of relationship he shared with his friend; all we know is that he once enjoyed making secular music and that he and his friend had started a band together. The memories of the old days, the pain of losing someone who was once too dear, and the guilt and shame of wanting to relive those days together led to Paul’s deterioration. Jem shared a fond relationship with her father, and it pained her to watch him wither away.

Why Did Owen End His Relationship With Jem?

Jem intentionally got a flat tire to spend some time with Owen in his car. She was a young girl driven by the desire to get close to her crush, and during those moments, she did not care if it was right or wrong. With Owen, Jem learned about the world outside of Kentucky. And for Owen, Jen was a respite from the naysaying adults. She believed in him and encouraged him to take chances. The car came to a halt at Jem’s driveway, and Owen asked her to spit her gum in his hand. Jem did not know what to make of it; it seemed wrong, yet the sexual tension was undeniable. The feeling was unfamiliar yet comforting; the washroom was her only safe place to express the multitude of emotions and sensations that she experienced. The youth group went on a camping trip together, and Owen and Jem got a chance to bond. Owen did not share a pleasant relationship with his wife, Misty. He could sense that Jem was interested in him, and it became all the more clear while gathering wood for the bonfire. Owen tried to distance himself from Jem out of guilt, and it left her all the more hurt. Jem was experiencing love and attraction for the first time, and the rejection was a lot for her to process. After feeling rejected, she prayed to God for forgiveness. She was convinced that Satan had influenced her mind and body. She started to dissociate herself from her bodily desires and lustful thoughts and blamed it all on the devil. Jem agreed to court Ben Taylor, but she did not feel the same way for him as she did for his brother.

Jem’s mother had quite an influence on her when it came to performing her religious duty. She had grown up watching Heidi lie to herself about her husband’s happiness. Every time he strayed from the path, she convinced herself that it was Satan who had gotten a hold of Paul once again. By blaming the entire situation on a supernatural entity, Heidi never had to address the problems that existed in her marriage. She had spent her entire marital life in denial, believing that was how their lives were supposed to be.

Jem focused on choreographing, but her troupe members did not show confidence in her. The hurtful comments affected her, and she prayed for some peace of mind. It was late when Owen found her praying; he did not wish to intrude and offered Jem a cup of noodles. It was only with Owen that she could discuss her father’s situation, and the distance that she once started to feel with him slowly dissipated. He gifted her a pair of earrings, and Jem decided to get her ears pierced to wear the seashells he got her. Owen knew about Jem courting his brother, and perhaps that was all the more reason why he decided to make a move. When Owen kissed Jem, she finally found out how he truly felt about her, and it was reassuring. They gradually made it a ritual to sneak out of their respective homes and meet at the split river road. The first night she slept with Owen in his car, she experienced guilt and shame. A lot happened in a short period of time, and she struggled to process it. The moral dilemma, along with the fear of becoming a corrupt woman, engulfed her, and she ran out of the car. It was only when Owen reassured her that their relationship was born out of God’s will that she found peace in it. Owen was not content with his marriage, and he wanted Jem to believe that he would not be punished for finding love in someone else. Jem was too naive to realize that she was being groomed. Through love, Jem felt closer to God. She felt at peace with where she was in life, but Owen could not keep his mind off the possibilities that a foreign country offered. One night, her father saw her sneaking into the house, but he was too drunk to protest. Jem decided to spend some time with her father in their backyard, and he shared details from the life he abandoned. He spoke about his band, the record deal they signed, and the club in Memphis where they mostly performed. No matter how brave he tried to act, he missed his carefree life.

The conflict began when Misty tried to change Jem’s choreography. She did not take well to the corrections and scratched Misty’s car on her way out. She was a teenager dating a married man, and jealousy was the most obvious emotion for her to experience. Misty also found out that Owen showed Jem’s preference, and Owen was worried that Jem’s reaction would affect his marriage. One morning, when Misty was away, Jem sneaked into their house. As they were sharing a moment of intimacy, they heard Misty park her car in the driveway. Jem was forced to hide in the bathroom, and even after waiting for hours, Owen did not come to find her. When she heard Misty open the entrance door, she snuck out of the bedroom. Her sister, Rebecca, saw her leave Owen’s house, and no matter how hard Jem tried to justify her relationship with Owen, she was not ready to listen. When Owen found out that Rebecca knew about their relationship, he decided to stop meeting Jem altogether. Jem was devastated; she was no longer allowed to perform in the dance troupe, and the person she loved chose to save his marriage over their relationship.

‘The Starling Girl’ Ending Explained: What Did Jem Ultimately Choose?

Paul apologized to Jem for taking away the one thing she loved. Jem was quite like him, and he knew how much it must have hurt her to give up on dancing. He crashed on the floor within a few minutes and was unconscious. He was admitted to a hospital, and the next morning, when Heidi returned, she explained that Paul was still not awake, and the doctor could not guarantee anything. Jem learned that her father had overdosed on the pills Heidi took. But Heidi was not ready to admit that her husband tried to commit suicide; instead, she continuously implied that he had taken the pills by accident. At the Labor Day event, Jem had to pretend to be alright. But she had no control over her rage as she watched the dance troupe perform. She was all the more furious when Owen ignored her. She walked into the river, and Ben followed her. He wanted Jem to explain herself, but she was in a terrible mood. She was so angry with how her life was turning out that she tried to drown Ben. When he managed to resurface, he called her a psycho and left. Jem returned home in the evening and found her mother seated in the living room. Jem was concerned the moment she noticed her mother smoking. She was worried that it was her father, but instead, she realized that her mother had found out about her relationship with Owen.

Pastor Taylor came home the next morning and blamed Jem for leading his son down the wrong path. Jem was shocked to learn that Owen blamed her for influencing him. She tried to explain how their relationship was God’s blessing, but she soon figured out that it was not what the elders believed. With Owen not defending their relationship, Jem did not have a choice. She agreed to do whatever was necessary to be saved, but the moment she heard that her mother and Pastor Taylor had decided to send her to King’s Valley, she cried profusely. She knew that she would be tortured there, and she was extremely scared. Even though she had no intention of going to King’s Valley, she was made to believe that was the only way to save her soul. She apologized in front of the entire congregation and prepared to leave. As she waited for Pastor Taylor at the front door with her luggage, Owen came running to her. He apologized for leaving her and doubting their relationship, and he proposed that they leave Kentucky together. Heidi punched Owen and asked him to leave, but by then, Jem had made up her mind. She hopped into his car with her luggage, and they left the community. They stayed at a motel while Owen arranged to sell his car and travel to the Puerto Rican missionary with Jem. Even though Jem was with the man she believed she was in love with, deep down, she felt incomplete. No matter how much she tried to brush away that feeling, she could not.

The Starling Girl ends with Jem taking a chance. At midnight, when Owen was fast asleep, she stole his car keys and drove away. She traveled to Memphis and reached Arleen’s bar, the place where her father used to perform. Paul remembered the bar as a place of freedom, and even though the bar was not glamorous, it was the place he enjoyed playing the most. Paul was right; it was not a glitzy place, but Jem was overjoyed to imagine her father playing there. It was the place where Paul was his uninhibited self. Jem wanted to feel the joy and sense of contentment that Paul once did. In the end, Jem perhaps realized how everyone around her was making decisions for her and had complete control over her. She assumed Owen was her escape, but after leaving the community, she sensed that she was not yet free. Instead of depending on her family, she was now dependent on a 28-year-old man who was desperately trying to make sense of his life. Maybe after reaching Memphis, she planned to call Owen, but she decided not to. In Memphis, at Arleen’s, she was content, perhaps for the first time in her life. She did not know anyone; she had no idea what she would do next, but she was free to make her own choices. After being told what to wear and how to move, Jem experienced the joy of dancing freely without being engulfed in guilt and shame.

One does not have to belong to a fundamentalist Christian community to understand the complex emotions Jem experiences throughout The Starling Girl. Even though the circumstances are specific, the emotions are familiar. Eliza Scanlen, best known for Sharp Objects and Little Women, is thoroughly brilliant. Laura Parmet makes a promising directorial debut with The Starling Girl, a film that is visually beautiful and emotionally profound.

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Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni Rudra
Srijoni has worked as a film researcher on a government-sponsored project and is currently employed as a film studies teacher at a private institute. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. Film History and feminist reading of cinema are her areas of interest.

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