Jem is thrown into further turbulence by her intense connection with youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman). As their bond deepens and soon turns transgressive, Jem struggles with conflicting loyalties to the church, her community, and her autonomy. Writer/director Parmet, whose empathetic lens previously distinguished shorts “Spring” and “Kira Burning,” steers her feature debut through a compassionate yet unflinching interrogation of power dynamics in religion and sexuality, the kind that can engender both desire and shame, repression and liberation.
“The Starling Girl” premiered at Sundance earlier this year, with Bleecker Street then acquiring the film for stateside release on May 12th. Out of the festival, RogerEbert.com sat down with Parmet, Scanlen, and Pullman to discuss filming some of its most challenging scenes, not losing sight of their main character, and dancing as a form of sacred self-expression.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start by discussing the film’s origins. Laurel, I know you had spent time with women from a religious fundamentalist community while working on another project.
Laurel Parmet: That was eye-opening for me. My first instinct when I met them was to think, “Wow, this is really backwards.” Their church believed that patriarchy was ordained by God, that women were created to submit to men, and that it was the woman’s responsibility not to lead a man into temptation. These women basically learned to be ashamed of their desires, that their bodies are not their own, that their bodies belonged to God.
At first, I felt like it was pretty backward. But, the more I thought about it, I saw similarities to how I grew up, in our culture. When I was a teenager, I had a relationship with an older guy and had guilt about it, because I had a lot of agency. I pursued him. I didn’t feel like a victim. I felt like I was mature enough in what was happening. My time with those women was meaningful because it made me reflect back on my own relationship. It made me think about it in ways that I hadn’t before, and it made me recognize that guilt and think about it. It made me realize how universal the female experience is, no matter how you grow up.