As cultural “talk” becomes more aligned with scary quotes than substantive conversation, bringing a complicated work of art into the world can be terrifying. “Sometimes, it’s scary to trust an audience,” said “The Starling Girl” writer-director Laurel Parmet. “It’s also invigorating and thrilling.”
Parmet’s directorial debut is loosely based on her coming-of-age story, during which she was in 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, an inquisitive and intelligent teenager whose world is turned upside down by the return of scheming young pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman). Drawn to each other despite the many bonds that should keep them apart — their age difference, power dynamic, and more — their relationship serves as a catalyst for Jem to fully come into herself.
It is an insidious story that threatens to become incendiary in today’s culture. When the film premiered at Sundance 2023, IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich’s (very positive) review generated social media hard feelings over a headline that called Pullman’s character “sexy” and said that Scanlen’s character ” sin with” him. It was a snappy header, but it also captured the tension of the film. owen AND attractive. Jem does believe, for a while, that she is an equal in their relationship. The film builds on that gray area and works for viewers willing to make room for it.
“That’s part of what I think is normal when you tell such a nuanced story,” Parmet said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “We absolutely want to have those conversations, and that’s part of the point of the film. But that’s what makes publicizing the film and then social media and Twitter so difficult, where there’s really no room for nuance. It’s about brevity and how to talk about the film with so many words and bites. It 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 beyond the tropes to appreciate the film’s deeply thought-out take. “Audiences are familiar with those stereotypes where either you have the girl who falls in love with an older man, and she’s the victim of abuse and isn’t portrayed as exercising any kind of agency, and then you have the other end of the spectrum where the creator is completely eroticizing that power dynamic, like ‘Lolita,'” said Scanlen. “Laurel wanted to avoid both of these stereotypes and create something… YesI’ll say the word again – something more nuanced.
Parmet said navigation was the “whole core” of his filmmaking process. “I was asking myself that as I wrote and as I directed every single day, ‘How do we get this delicate dance going?'” Parmet said. “We’re trying to show these two characters falling into this romance and being invested in these characters, while also highlighting how problematic it is. It’s such a tightrope walk. It extended to every part of the film making process.
Parmet found his solution by approaching the story through Jem’s perspective. “It was about grounding the film in Jem’s experience 100% so that the audience experiences the relationship, as she does, and create something that is vivid and intoxicating, intimate and immediate,” said Parmet. “Taking the audience on this journey where they’re really experiencing everything they’re experiencing in real time, I think that’s how you accomplish that.”
That meant trusting the audience to see things through Jem’s eyes. “That was the funniest part of directing,” he 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 completely different way about the relationship, and then at the end of the scene they’re like, ‘Oh wait , maybe I’m rooting for it again.’”
Scanlen said, “It’s a much more interesting experience for the audience when it’s challenged. Laurel was exploring a moral gray area, and the only way to do that was to fully immerse the audience in Jem’s perspective. They can experience with Jem his confusion and guilt about him, and how she swings between her desire for Owen and her desire to be his own person and free from the shame and restriction she feels as a result of being in this community. .
In practice, this meant a lot of experimentation. “Lewis had to try many different versions of Owen’s intentions in various scenes,” Scanlen said. “Having these different options made it easier for Laurel to manipulate those scenes in post-production so the audience could experience that journey with Jem.”
Parmet added, “Just to be able to turn those dials up on Owen’s charm and turn it down on Owen’s charm and play with where in the story I want the audience to connect with him and what I want them to feel repulsed. It was very calculated.”
However, Parmet said he didn’t want to manipulate his audience; he wanted Trust They. “We didn’t want to force interpretations on the audience through images or through music,” Parmet said. “There are hardly any shots in the film, because I felt like they overemphasized the moments. 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 draw their own conclusions about what’s on screen.
Parmet said she was inspired to set the story within 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 their feelings about growing up as women in a male-dominated world were eerily similar. She also spent months interviewing community members who experienced church abuse, and the production brought in consultants 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 this on different levels. I’m not religious, but I went to Catholic school and would have what you call Catholic guilt. These are very formative years in your life, and I’ve certainly been taught to maybe be a little more reserved. I think women are often taught at a young age to feel ashamed of their sexuality and express their desires.
Scanlen also highlighted the impact entertainment can have on young minds. “I won’t name the movie, but I was just watching a movie about the plane and parts of it 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 made me wonder how you absorb those beliefs and assumptions about women at that age.”
Parmet added, “You don’t even realize it’s happening, but you’re just indoctrinated.”
If the pair sounds 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 in his native Australia — the pair listened intently and never interrupted each other before adding their opinion on a line of thought. “Eliza is my creative partner for life,” said the director. “I think she’s the best actress of her generation.”
In contrast to the tongue-clicking online, Parmet and Scanlen said they’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the in-person audience.
“After pretty much every single screening, we’ve had people who have grown up in the church in some way, are struggling with their faith at the moment, or have left a conservative church,” Parmet said. “People have come to me and told me how much the film resonated with them and how they felt seen. We often have these very emotional conversations. It was so important to me that the movie feel authentic and truthful, so it feels like it’s working and I’m really, really happy about that. We spent a lot of time trying to get it right.
Scanlen also noted that she was particularly pleased with the reactions to the film’s approach to religion. It’s not a judgment call, but it can be a tough thing to sell in a log line, bite, or 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 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 this one in particular,” Scanlen said. “That’s what Jem ultimately discovers in the end, his unique relationship with God.”
Who would Parmet most like to see on the opening weekend of his film? “I want everyone who loves movies to go see this movie, but I think this movie speaks particularly to people who identify with women, anyone who has tried to figure out who they are in the face of all the expectations the world places on us. It’s about the freedoms and dangers these searches can bring. I think anyone can relate to this.
A Bleecker Street release, “The Starling Girl,” hits theaters on Friday, May 12.