“The Starling Girl,” directed by Laurel Parmet, achieves excellence in its ambiguity. Parmet’s feature directorial debut follows 17- year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) as she begins to question what life could hold for her beyond the fundamentalist Christian community in which she was raised. The return of her married youth pastor, Owen (Lewis Pullman), serves as a catalyst for her burgeoning sexuality and desire for independence. Parmet’s feature premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Earlier this month, it sold to Bleecker Street for distribution.
Narratives centered around teenage girls entering into precarious relationships with older men are deeply familiar to audiences, most recently taken to psychedelic heights in Ethel Cain’s 2022 concept album “Preacher’s Daughter,” but also in the equally magnificent classics, “An Education” (2009) and “Fish Tank” (2009). “Starling Girl” follows in the footsteps of such stories, and inevitably includes a few predictable beats. Still, Parmet’s careful handling of religious trauma and predatory relationships, and how the two play off of each other, shines through.
In tackling this concept, Parmet drew from her own experiences as well as her study of women from fundamentalist Christian communities in Arkansas, as she noted in a post-film interview at the festival. These influences are reflected in Parmet’s direction and writing, as she fixates solely on Jem’s perspective.
Scanlen, known for her chilling performance as Amma in Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Sharp Objects” and as Beth in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” is no stranger to depicting doomed teenagedom, so it’s refreshing to see her skills brought to a character brimming with promise.
Jem’s attachment to the life she knows at home is symbolized by the tranquil natural environment of Kentucky, where the film was shot on-location. Parmet’s subtle focus on landscapes of the American south recalls Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020), and how pastoral settings can represent both beauty and hardship.
A central reason that “Starling Girl” works so well is because it maintains Jem’s agency. Throughout the film, control is exerted over her, first from her family and church community, and later Owen. Parmet transgresses the conventional boundaries of similar stories – she wants the audience to feel the allure of Owen’s stashed cigarettes, to yearn for the possibilities of Jem’s life along with her, to understand how her community simultaneously imbues her with purpose and terror, and to question what it would mean for her to leave it all behind.
There are few voices of guidance for Jem to turn to, and she finds herself torn between two destructive forces as a result. Parmet isn’t interested in scolding Jem, or bringing her story to a neat conclusion. In fact, the film’s ambiguity is what makes it soar – and by the time the end credits roll to the crooning of Emmylou Harris’ “Tennessee Rose,” it’s clear that Jem’s life extends far beyond the screen.