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: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.