PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: (L–R) Kyle Secor, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Kara Durrett, Director Laurel Parmet, Jimmi Simpson, Eliza Scanlen, Producer Kevin Rowe, Austin Abrams, and Jessamine Burgum attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “The Starling Girl” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 21, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
By Lucy Spicer
Jem Starling is conflicted. As a 17-year-old girl in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky, she knows what to expect from life. Her mother and her pastor have chosen a boy for her to begin courting, and years of helping to take care of her younger siblings have prepared her for the role of homemaker. Jem wants to live according to God’s plan. But she’s also having impure thoughts about Owen, her intriguing youth pastor recently returned from Puerto Rico.
In The Starling Girl, which premiered on January 21 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah, writer-director Laurel Parmet encourages her audience to grapple with themes of desire, agency, power dynamics, and abuse. The film follows the progression of Jem and Owen’s relationship and how it puts Jem in touch with what she really wants, even as the pair inevitably unravel the roles their fundamentalist community had assigned them. Parmet entrusts her multidimensional, deeply human protagonist to a remarkably convincing Eliza Scanlen, whose expressive face radiates both the uncertainty and defiance of youth.
The story of a grown man coveting a teenage girl is nothing new, but Parmet’s unwavering focus on Jem and her agency sets this film apart. Jem pursues Owen. She makes conscious choices, takes action, even resorts to deception to get what she wants. In a memorable scene, Jem rejects an offer to have her ear pierced. Instead, she takes the earring, walks to a mirror, and pierces her ear herself.
Parmet drew from her own experiences to create Jem’s character. “I had a similar experience when I was a teenager with an older man, and I had a lot of agency in the relationship and didn’t consider myself a victim,” she explains during the post-premiere discussion.
But amid Jem’s shows of assertiveness, Parmet doesn’t let us forget the girl’s youth and inexperience. She faces grown-up issues — her search for fulfillment, struggle with her faith, feeling powerless to help her troubled father — but she’s not done growing yet. And though Jem and Owen (played by a quietly magnetic Lewis Pullman) come together as two individuals stifled by the confines of their community, that doesn’t stop his actions from being transgressive. “These relationships are complicated and nuanced, and we can wield power while at the same time being taken advantage of. Both things are true,” says Parmet.
The writer-director set out to make a film that would challenge audiences with its main character. “You’re rooting for her, you want what she wants,” Parmet explains. “So sometimes, you want them to get together, because that’s what she wants, and then the idea is, hopefully, that you’re like, ‘Oh wait, no, why did I want that to happen?’” she says to a laughing audience.
“My favorite films are the ones where I’m constantly asking questions and going back and forth, and that’s when I’m the most engaged,” she continues. “So I made something that I would want to watch.”