There is a moment early in writer/director Laurel Parmet’s feature debut The Starling Girl which subtly, yet effectively underscores the pervasive patriarchal values that swirl around Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects), our 17-year-old protagonist living in a fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky. Having recently developed into “courting” age, Jem is being ushered towards a future as a submissive wife to family friend and pastor’s son, Ben Taylor (Austin Abrams, Euphoria), boyish in looks and personality. As their parents excitedly discuss their future after church, they suggest Ben take Jem out and teach her how to fish, completely dismissing Jem’s interjection that she already knows how to fish.
Jem does not have a voice in this conversation, just as she does not have a voice in her community. Beyond the baseline of shame and guilt that women are imbued with by society from a young age, Jem is further oppressed by her religion which causes tears to well up upon the “helpful” observation that her bra can be seen through her shirt. The implications of shame are so thinly veiled that they might as well not be there. Don’t even fathom the potential to explore self-pleasure, as that is Satan working overtime to get you off the righteous path. The beliefs of indecency are more clearly depicted in a moment when a young man returns from a “retreat” and atones for his sin of looking at porn in front of the congregation. To have to apologize for wrestling with your hormones is bad enough, but to involve your community is unconscionable.
For all of the oppression she faces, Jem is not consciously an unhappy person. She believes in all that she has been taught, and she loves being involved with the church. Specifically, she loves being a part of her church dance group, even if she is often pointedly reminded by her mother (Wrenn Schmidt, Nope) that she should be dancing for the Lord and not her own earthly pleasures. She is used to her cultural confinement, and she does not have the wisdom or therapeutic vocabulary to recognize any discomfort she feels to the contrary. Jem is at the perfect moment in her life to “come of age” and enter the next chapter of her development, but her upbringing and circumstances have collided in a way that makes her vulnerable and unprepared to deal with her swirling emotions.
Enter youth pastor Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick), brother of Ben, who has just returned from a missionary trip to Puerto Rico with some crazy ideas. He is as much of a “bad boy” as you get from a married youth pastor; he sometimes sneaks a cigarette and his teachings can be a bit out of the box for a community so focused on keeping the status quo.
It is no wonder he becomes an object of infatuation for Jem. It is not really that he is some dream boat, although Pullman is at his most handsome to date. It is the larger idea of freedom and possibility that he represents, one of the only people she has interacted with that truly knows the outside world. A heartbreaking subplot with her musician-turned-evangelical father (Jimmi Simpson, Westworld) illuminates Jem to the fact that someone closer to her actually fits this bill, but this just further underlines the harm caused by oppression.
The most pivotal choice this movie makes is to center all of the experiences from Jem’s perspective. Despite society trying to deny it to her, Jem has agency. This does not mean that her experiences are not painful to witness or she is not being abused. This movie can be a very difficult watch as she both wields a small amount of power for the first time in some respects and finds herself being exploited by uneven power dynamics.
The frame is bursting with warmth as Jem pines for Owen, perfectly capturing the dreamy quality of young lust. The story itself does not judge Jem for any feelings she harbors, nor does it romanticize the obviously problematic affair the narrative expectedly offers up. Perhaps the most bold example of the uneven dynamics between them is illustrated when Owen makes Jem spit her gum into his hand. This perverted take on an old-school authoritarian command juxtaposes her titillation with the audience’s deep discomfort admirably. Both experiences are realized authentically in a very complicated tonal balance from Parmet.
This tightrope between coming-of-age excitement and heartbreaking theft of innocence only becomes more tricky upon the beginning of what Jem would call a relationship with Owen. The excitement of finally owning your sexuality and sneaking out late at night to meet a boy crashes with the cruel reality that you are actually dealing with a grown man who should know better.
Parmet captures the subtle shift within Jem upon realizing that her charming lover may not be as evolved as she dreamed. This is also when the seismic effects of the patriarchal values that have been instilled within her clearly ramp up. It is easy to dismiss your own minor concerns when your literal spiritual leader comments that being together “doesn’t feel like a sin.”
To reduce this story to a young girl being taken advantage of would be a disservice to Jem as a fully three-dimensional character. This is a story of loss, but not the black-and-white type of loss that a woman’s “virtue” is so frequently, and reductively, boiled down to in stories with similar subject matter. This is a loss in the faith she had in those around her, not only within her community, but more painfully in her family. Experiencing firsthand how society views the experiences and reputation of men over her own, not to mention being defined by only one facet of her complex individual identity. This reckoning is a difficult part of growing up for most, but especially so for those burdened by religious teachings.
This loss is complemented by a hard-earned gain, one that allows the movie to ultimately not feel like a tale of heartbreak. One of the greatest loves is that which we find within ourselves, even when forces in our lives are working overtime against this. Eliza Scanlen beautifully captures the raw emotions and deeper understanding that comes from real-world experience. Jem is so much more than a victim; she is a young woman with a desire for a life greater than what she has been dealt. Laurel Parmet has developed a complex character who is relatable in her earnestness and astounding in her fortitude. She is both misguided and incredibly clever. She is so much more than we typically see depicted on screen, and that we have a narrative that so nimbly navigates her complexities with grace is a true gift.
The Starling Girl had its World Premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of Sundance Film Festival 2023.
Director: Laurel Parmet
Writer: Laurel Parmet
Writer/Director Laurel Parmet crafts a hilarious and heartbreaking coming-of-age drama in her feature debut "The Starling Girl."
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.