An intoxicating, delicate coming-of-age tale in ‘The Starling Girl’

May 16, 2023, 8:08 AM

FILE - Jimmi Simpson, back row from left, Lewis Pullman, Austin Abrams, foreground from left, direc...

FILE - Jimmi Simpson, back row from left, Lewis Pullman, Austin Abrams, foreground from left, director Laurel Parmet, Eliza Scanlen and Wrenn Schmidt pose for a portrait to promote the film "The Starling Girl" during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 22, 2023. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)
Credit: Invision

(Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)

Laurel Parmet’s directorial debut “ The Starling Girl ” puts the viewer in the modest shoes of a 17-year-old girl named Jem. She’s grown up in a Christian fundamentalist community in Kentucky and has internalized its teachings, feeling deep shame for drawing attention to herself and her body, which as an artistically-inclined member of the dance troupe is especially difficult to avoid.

But her world starts to change when Owen, a handsome 28-year-old youth leader played by Lewis Pullman, returns from a mission in Puerto Rico. Jem, played by Australian actor Eliza Scanlen, develops an intense infatuation with him that soon evolves into something more.

It’s a film about many things — family, patriarchal societies, toxic relationships, power dynamics, first loves and, ultimately, growing up — but it’s neither outwardly judgmental nor blunt. “The Starling Girl,” currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and expanding to other cities this weekend, is done with a delicate touch.

“(Jem) is a very complex character and I think quite different from other portrayals of young women in communities like this,” Scanlen said. “What makes this film stand out is it’s not making any kind of definitive statement about the church or fundamentalist communities. It’s actually trying to humanize the people who live in them.”

The story comes from Parmet, who while in Oklahoma for another project got to know some woman in a patriarchal Christian community. Though she grew up worlds apart, as a child of parents who work in movies and television (a cinematographer and a costumer), she realized that they had commonalities too — from feelings of sexual shame to the need for validation from men.

The film touches on these ideas and also draws from her own experience of having a relationship with an older man when she was a teenager. And, because it’s told from Jem’s point of view, the journey is a bit of a rollercoaster for the audience who may even find themselves emotionally wrapped up in Jem and Owen’s romance, despite knowing that it is fundamentally wrong.

“Something that I was trying to do with this film is have the audience be with the main character moment to moment,” said Parmet. “You are with her every step of the way. You feel her intoxication, you feel this vivid opening up that she’s experiencing while at the same time conveying that this relationship is problematic.”

Parmet drew visual and tonal inspiration from Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love,” a film that she finds lush, green, immediate, intimate, stimulating and dangerous.

A key part of making that dynamic work was finding the right Owen — someone who you believe Jem would fall for and also someone that the audience falls for too, at least for a time. Pullman, Parmet said, had the gentle charisma to straddle the complex line. Jem can’t see that he’s a lost soul himself, and he likely doesn’t even realize he’s a groomer or in the wrong. In rehearsals, Scanlen, Pullman and Parmet would try to determine who has the power in a certain scene.

“Plenty of people walk out hating Owen, which is, you know, valid and makes a lot of sense,” Pullman said. “But I think my weird goal in all this was, if there was anybody who was in a relationship similar to it, I wanted him to be approachable enough that they could see themselves in him, right? I didn’t want to make him so such a such a monster that people wouldn’t look at themselves in the mirror and question whether their actions at all might parallel his.”

As Jem, Scanlen found in their dynamic a powerful truth about the possibility of both having agency in a relationship and also being a victim of abuse at the same time. The film also explores how patriarchal systems can be harmful for men too. Like Owen, Jem’s father (Jimmi Simpson) is struggling in the community as an addict whose recovery is not being supported in a helpful way.

“I do think the film is about all of us,” Simpson said. “We all subscribe to some kind of rule system that helps us get through life a little easier.”

Parmet also hopes that the film speaks to everyone.

“I hope that people see themselves in the story and in the characters, no matter their background,” Parmet said. “It’s a story that’s really about trying to figure out who you are.”

Making an independent film is never the most glamorous pursuit (Kentucky, though beautiful, was also quite buggy) but all were driven by a shared sense of purpose and a belief that their director is an auteur in the making who is just getting started.

“The beauty of making indie films is that everybody’s in it together and in it for the right reasons,” Scanlen said. “You’re just there to make something beautiful.”


Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter:

United States News

This photo provided by the chipmaker Nvidia shows the company’s HGX H100 module, which can use as...

Associated Press

AI chips are hot. Here’s what they are, what they’re for and why investors see gold

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The hottest thing in technology is an unprepossessing sliver of silicon closely related to the chips that power video game graphics. It’s an artificial intelligence chip, designed specifically to make building AI systems such as ChatGPT faster and cheaper. Such chips have suddenly taken center stage in what some experts consider […]

23 hours ago

Natalie R. Coles, vice president & chief development officer at Wilberforce University, poses on th...

Associated Press

US companies, nudged by Black employees, have stepped up donations to HBCUs

Natalie Coles will never forget receiving an unexpected phone call in 2020. On the line was Virginia-based Dominion Energy, offering to give money to Wilberforce University, the small historically Black college where she is in charge of fundraising. The company’s $500,000 donation went in part toward laptops and hot spots for students when the pandemic […]

23 hours ago

FILE - This booking photo provided by the Clay County, Mo., Sheriff's Office shows Andrew Lester. L...

Associated Press

Judge agrees to seal court documents in Ralph Yarl shooting; suspect to be in court

LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas City man accused of shooting a Black teenager who mistakenly came to his door last month is scheduled to be back in court Thursday, days after a judge ruled that court documents in the case will be sealed and kept from the public. The hearing for 84-year-old Andrew Lester […]

23 hours ago

FILE - Susana Lujano, left, a dreamer from Mexico who lives in Houston, joins other activists to ra...

Associated Press

Revised DACA program to be debated before Texas judge who previously ruled against it

HOUSTON (AP) — A revised version of a federal policy that prevents the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children is set to be debated Thursday before a federal judge who previously ruled the program illegal. Attorneys representing the nine states that have sued to end the Deferred Action […]

23 hours ago

FILE - Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that lega...

Associated Press

LGBTQ+ Pride month kicks off with protests, parades, parties

NEW YORK (AP) — The start of June marks the beginning of Pride month around the U.S. and some parts of the world, a season to celebrate the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ communities and to protest against recent attacks on hard-won civil rights gains. This year’s Pride takes place in a contentious political climate […]

23 hours ago

Associated Press

After sailing though House on bipartisan vote, Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal now goes to Senate

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veering away from a default crisis, the House overwhelmingly approved a debt ceiling and budget cuts package, sending the deal that President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated to the Senate for swift passage in a matter of days, before a fast-approaching deadline. The hard-fought compromise pleased few, but lawmakers assessed […]

23 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



Here are the biggest tips to keep your AC bill low this summer

PHOENIX — In Arizona during the summer, having a working air conditioning unit is not just a pleasure, but a necessity. No one wants to walk from their sweltering car just to continue to be hot in their home. As the triple digits hit around the Valley and are here to stay, your AC bill […]


Desert Institute for Spine Care

Spinal fusion surgery has come a long way, despite misconceptions

As Dr. Justin Field of the Desert Institute for Spine Care explained, “we've come a long way over the last couple of decades.”

(Photo: OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center)...

OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

Here’s what you need to know about OCD and where to find help

It's fair to say that most people know what obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders generally are, but there's a lot more information than meets the eye about a mental health diagnosis that affects about one in every 100 adults in the United States.

An intoxicating, delicate coming-of-age tale in ‘The Starling Girl’