There’s something that the recent spate of coming-of-age films involving passionate young women have in common, and it’s Bleecker Street Studios. A couple of months ago, there was Emily, the excellent Emily Brontë biopic that found a creative interpretation of our literary heroine romping through the moors, high on drugs and gradually finding her voice.
Now comes The Starling Girl, the excellent, nuanced debut film from director Laurel Parmet, which charts the sexual awakening and startling downfall of a 17-year-old girl named Jem, who relishes expressing herself through dance in her fundamentalist Christian community in Kentucky.
Brought to life with thoughtful sensitivity by actress Eliza Scanlen, Jem wants to love passionately and express herself, even while agonizing internally over what those things mean.
Scanlen was wonderful and feral in the limited series Sharp Objects as a terrifying teenage serial murderer. Her Jem, in contrast, feels preternaturally in touch with both her sensuality and with an immense sense of guilt.
The character is bright, direct and devoted to God, but she’s also constantly being scrutinized within the feminine panopticon of her devout surroundings.
In one of the movie’s first scenes, Jem weeps bitterly in self-admonishment after a fellow churchgoer points out that her bra is visible through her shirt.
Parmet immersed herself in a fundamentalist community to research the film, and witnessed these dynamics play out firsthand.
“It was eye-opening for me just how much we had in common in terms of what our cultures taught us to believe about women’s desires, and how it’s a woman’s responsibility to not lead a man into temptation,” Parmet told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed.
Jem quickly becomes enamored with Owen, a youth pastor several years her senior played by Lewis Pullman, who sweeps back into town on the heels of a mission trip.
In turn, the audience is just as seduced as she is by his scruffy charm and conspiratorial in-jokes, and moments later, repelled by the clearly unacceptable power imbalance between the two.
Jem loses her virginity to Owen, and despite their spiritual conflict, they begin a secret affair.
“It was important for this relationship to not be reduced to aggressor and victim, nor for it be reduced to an eroticized relationship,” Scanlen told Obsessed. “They’re two stereotypes that we see all the time, and we wanted to avoid them.”
“It was an interesting process for both Lewis and I to navigate those sexual scenes, because Jem plays a very active part in her relationship,” Scanlen said. “She has agency, yet at the same time, she can’t understand why it’s wrong, because she’s too young to understand that it’s an abuse of power. Jem having agency yet being abused at the same time are both truths.”
The film charts these nuanced dynamics with a rigorous dedication to Jem’s point of view, from which it never wavers. Her joy at self-discovery, and her feelings of being totally awash with love, are just as palpable as her despair later becomes, followed by the release valve of redemption.
“I wanted to create something that was vivid and intoxicating and intimate and immediate,” Parmet said. “I strove for immediacy, but also for restraint, which will hopefully encourage viewers to form their own conclusions about what’s going on on screen.”
“I didn’t want to make a film that was condescending, or mocking people in these communities,” Parmet said. “The film is not to blaspheme God. It’s really more to show the complex sides of faith and, and to suggest that there are many ways to connect with God. It’s about how God can live in Jem’s desires, and in her actions.”
As if reckoning with the wrath of her community and with Owen wasn’t enough, Jem also has to combat the irritant of Ben, a local weirdo played by Austin Abrams, who’s interested in courting her.
Abrams delivers an incredible monologue involving farm animal excrement that should earn him some kind of award, and in another scene, his character so completely fails to heed Jem’s pleas to get away from her that she violently retaliates.
“I had a funny interaction with an audience member when I was at the Sundance Film Festival Q&A and one of the audience members asked, ‘Why did Jem try to drown Ben?’” Scanlen said.
“And I don’t know where it came from, but I said to her, ‘To all the women in the room: Do you all know what it feels like to be told what to do by a man when you don’t wanna be told what to do?’”