Growing up, one of Laurel Parmet’s favorite films was Tamara Jenkins’ “Slums of Beverly Hills.” For Parmet, the late ’90s was marked by a period of coming-of-age narratives that often featured caricatures of adolescence, ones that deviated from her own experience — until she watched Jenkins’ 1998 film.
“I just remember it was very meaningful for me at that age to be able to see myself reflected on-screen,” Parmet said in an interview with The Daily Californian after “The Starling Girl,” her feature directorial debut, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. “And it made me feel like I want to do that for people.”
Certainly, Parmet’s film is an intimate portrait of the plight of adolescence, illustrating the desire to understand oneself within a community bound by rigid expectations. 17-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) questions if it’s possible to feel too much. Her life centers around finding contentment within her Christian fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky — suppressing her desires, taking care of others and receiving pure satisfaction from God. To escape the perplexity of her circumstances, she turns to her youth pastor, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman) who abuses his authority to engage in a romantic relationship with Jem.
“I had a similar relationship when I was a teenager with an older man and didn’t see myself as a victim, had plenty of agency and really actively pursued him,” Parmet explained. “…After it ended, I had a lot of negative feelings about myself and a lot of guilt about how I had acted in the relationship, but I think I didn’t really process those feelings and reckon with them and kind of just pushed them away. Years later, I found myself in Oklahoma, and I met a group of women from a patriarchal fundamentalist church and spent time with them and learned about their beliefs.”
Parmet’s time engaging with this community influenced her understanding of her own adolescence and allowed her to trace a universal thread from Christian fundamentalist communities to the broader pressures placed on women.
“They learned that God created their bodies, God owns their bodies,” Parmet said. “My reaction, at first, was shock to their beliefs. And then really, the more I thought about it, the more I saw how much that we had in common in terms of our attitudes towards our bodies, our sexual desires and seeking self worth in men’s approval.”
Throughout the film, Jem is consistently scolded by her parents and told that she cannot “pursue a life of self-centeredness.” She’s asked to deny her exploration of her selfhood, and instead live for the satisfaction of everyone else — her parents, her siblings and her youth pastor. Parmet’s film explores the nuances inherent within Jem’s world, balancing Jem’s agency and Owen’s inappropriate advances.
“It’s such a delicate dance because, without question, Owen is in the wrong,” Parmet remarked. “He’s using his authority to seduce Jem, but at the same time, Jem has agency and pursues him. We wanted to tell the story entirely from Jem’s perspective so that the audience experiences the relationship how she experiences it.”
Pullman’s performance as the perplexing, disreputable Owen Taylor is skillfully unsettling, indicative of the 30-year-old actor’s remarkable prowess as a performer. In preparing for the demanding role, Pullman had extensive conversations with Parmet about the character’s intentions.
“I wanted to just take Laurel’s guidance and perspective and try and understand the minutiae of exactly what she was trying to convey here and exactly what type of power dynamic we were trying to paint a portrait of,” Pullman explained.
Navigating her relationship with God, Owen and her own identity, Jem finds solace through dance. As a member of her church’s dance group, the young girl channels her creativity through physical movement, something that she is led to believe is selfish. In order to understand the complexities of Jem’s relationship with her taut environment, Scanlen masterfully channeled her character’s ties to performance.
“(Dance) was a helpful tool for me just personally to understand Jem,” Scanlen said. “It’s these kinds of wordless scenes that I find more terrifying to do. For actors, they sometimes help you feel closer to the character without the dialogue to lean on.”
Jem’s passion for artistic expression grants viewers insight into her psyche. At the start of “The Starling Girl,” Jem’s dancing is restricted by staid choreography, but as the film continues, she finds freedom through unimpeded physical movement.
“(Jem’s dancing) is quite subdued at the beginning of the film,” Scanlen said. “As she develops her relationship with Owen and they have conversations about their relationship with God and how they express their love for God and how they honor God, her dancing becomes more free and expressive.”
Even when her world feels as if it is imploding, Jem manages to use dance to break free from the predetermined trajectory of her life. Dance offers her an outlet through which she can enter a period of self-reflection and reject the monotony she experiences; it is a ubiquitous coming-of-age tale, but one that is rendered unique with Parmet’s delicate technique.
“It’s a universal story because it’s about trying to figure out who you are in the face of all of the expectations that the world places on you,” Parmet said. “That’s true for everyone, no matter how you grew up.”