As cultural “discourse” becomes more aligned with scare-quotes than substantive conversations, putting a complicated piece of art into the world can be terrifying. “Sometimes, it’s scary to trust the audience,” said “The Starling Girl” writer and director Laurel Parmet. “It’s also invigorating and thrilling.”
Parmet’s directorial debut is loosely based on her own coming-of-age story, during which she had a relationship with an older man when she was just a teenager. Set against the backdrop of a patriarchal fundamentalist church community, “The Starling Girl” stars Eliza Scanlen as Jem Starling, a curious and clever teen whose world is upended by the return of intriguing young pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman). Drawn to each other despite many constraints that should keep them apart — their age difference, the power dynamic, and much more — their relationship serves as the catalyst for Jem fully coming into herself.
It’s a tricky story that risks becoming incendiary in the current culture. When the film premiered at Sundance 2023, IndieWire’s own (very positive) review from our David Ehrlich generated social media rancor for a headline that called Pullman’s character “sexy” and said that Scanlen’s character “sins with” him. It was a clicky header, but it also captured the film’s tension. Owen is appealing. Jem does believe, for a time, that she’s an equal in their relationship. The film is built on that gray area and works for viewers willing to make space for it.
“That’s part of what I think is par for the course when you’re telling a story that is so nuanced,” Parmet said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “We definitely want to be having those conversations, and that’s part of the point of the film. But this is what’s so difficult about advertising the film and then social media and Twitter, where there’s really just no room for nuance. It’s all about brevity and it’s all about how to talk about the film in so many words and in sound bites. That was something difficult for us, even when we were cutting the trailer and talking about how to market the film. It’s like, how do you convey the nuance that a two-hour film conveys?”
Scanlen, who also joined us on Zoom, hopes audiences are willing to look past tropes to appreciate the film’s own deeply considered take. “Audiences are familiar with those stereotypes where you either have the young girl who falls in love with an older man, and she’s a victim of abuse and she’s not portrayed to wield any sort of agency, and then you have the other end of the spectrum where the creator is just completely eroticizing that power dynamic, like ‘Lolita,’” Scanlen said. “Laurel wanted to steer clear of both of those stereotypes and create something — yeah, I’m going to say the word again — something with more nuance.”
Parmet said navigating that was “the entire focus” of her filmmaking process. “I was asking myself that as I was writing and as I was directing every single day, ‘How do we get this delicate dance down right?,’” Parmet said. “We’re trying to show these two characters fall into this romance and get invested in these characters, while at the same time highlighting how it’s problematic. It’s such a tightrope walk. It extended to every part of the filmmaking process.”
Parmet found her solution by approaching the story through Jem’s perspective. “It was about grounding the film in Jem’s experience 100 percent, so that the audience experiences the relationship, how she experiences it, and creating something that is vivid and intoxicating and intimate and immediate,” Parmet said. “Bringing the audience on this journey where they’re really experiencing everything that she’s experiencing in real time, I think that is how you accomplish that.”
That meant trusting the audience to see things through Jem’s eyes. “That was the most fun part of directing,” she said. “At the beginning of a scene, they [might] feel one way about the relationship, and then in the middle of the scene, they feel a totally different way about the relationship, and then at the end of the scene they’re like, ‘Oh, wait, maybe I am rooting for it again.’”
Said Scanlen, “It’s a much more interesting experience for the audience when they’re challenged. Laurel was exploring a moral gray area, and the only way that she could do that was to completely immerse the audience in Jem’s perspective. They can experience with Jem her confusion and her guilt, and how she oscillates between her desire for Owen and her desire to be her own person and free from shame and the restriction that she feels as a result of being in this community.”
In practice, that meant lots of experimentation. “Lewis had to try many different versions of Owen’s intentions in various scenes,” Scanlen said. “To have those different options made it easier for Laurel to manipulate those scenes in post-production so that the audience was able to experience that ride with Jem.”
Parmet added, “Just to be able to turn those dials up on Owen’s charm and down on Owen’s charm and to play with where in the story I want the audience to be connecting with him and what I want them to feel repulsed. It was very calculated.”
However, Parmet said she didn’t want to manipulate her audience; she wanted to trust them. “We didn’t want to force interpretations on the audience through visuals or through music,” Parmet said. “There are hardly any insert shots in the film, because I just felt like they emphasize moments too much. It was about being present with the characters and allowing these moments to unfold and resonate more organically, to have the restraint that would encourage viewers to form their own conclusions about what’s on screen.”
Parmet said she was inspired to set the story inside a religious community after connecting with a group of fundamentalist women at an Oklahoma rodeo while researching another project. She didn’t share their upbringing, but found that their feelings attached to growing up as women in a male-dominated world were eerily similar. She also spent months interviewing members of communities that experienced church abuse, and the production brought on consultants to serve as a resource for the cast.
“Jem’s feelings of shame, I resonated with growing up,” Scanlen said. “I think every girl at some point in their life experiences that at different levels. I’m not religious, but I did go to a Catholic school and I would have what you call Catholic guilt. Those are very formative years in your life, and I definitely was taught to be perhaps a little bit more reserved. I think that women are often taught at a young age to feel shame around their sexuality and expressing their desires.”
Scanlen also pointed to the impact that entertainment can have on young minds. “I won’t name the film, but I was just watching a film on the plane and some parts were funny, but all the jokes that were being made where the woman was the butt of the joke I wasn’t laughing at all,” Scanlen said. “It was just deeply offensive, and it just made me think about how you imbibe those beliefs and assumptions about women at such an age.”
Parmet added, “You don’t even realize that it’s happening, but you’re just indoctrinated.”
If the pair sound like they’re in sync, that’s because they are. Even during a Zoom interview where they were thousands of miles apart — Parmet in Los Angeles, Scanlen back in her native Australia — the pair listened intently and never cut off each other before adding their own take on a line of thought. “Eliza is my creative partner for life,” the filmmaker said. “She’s, I think, the best actress of her generation.”
In contrast to the online tongue-clucking, Parmet and Scanlen said they have experienced plenty of positive feedback from in-person audiences.
“Pretty much after every single screening, we’ve had people come up to me who were raised in the church in some fashion, they’re struggling with their faith currently, or they have left a conservative church,” Parmet said. “People have come up to me and said how much the film resonated with them and how seen they felt. We oftentimes have these very emotional conversations. It was so important to me that the film feel authentic and truthful, so it feels like it’s working and I’m really, really happy for that. We spent a lot of time trying to get that right.”
Scanlen also noted that she’s particularly pleased with the reactions to how the film tackles religion. It’s not judgemental, but that can be a hard thing to sell in a log line or a sound bite or a Twitter reaction. “People really appreciate that Laurel didn’t want to criticize religion, she didn’t want to make any kind of moral statement about religion, but to actually show that you can have many different kinds of relationships with God or a higher being and that there’s nothing inherently wrong about that in particular,” Scanlen said. “That’s what Jem ultimately discovers in the end, her own unique relationship with God.”
Who would Parmet most like to see at her film’s opening weekend? “I want anyone who loves films to go see this film, but I think this film speaks particularly to female-identifying people, anyone who has experienced trying to figure out who they are in the face of all of the expectations that the world places on us. It’s about the freedoms and the dangers that those searches can bring. I think anybody can relate to that.”
A Bleecker Street release, “The Starling Girl” will hit theaters on Friday, May 12.