As the closing credits to Bleeker Street’s new film,“The Starling Girl,” began to scroll, I thought to myself: “This is a film about power.”
Afterwards, when I spoke with director Laurel Parmet, she told me this was a film about agency. But then again, it could be argued that as a study of patriarchal religious structures and the roles women play in them, this is a film about influence.
In the end, I decided to consider Parmet’s groundbreaking debut through a paradigm of all three.
“The Starling Girl” tells the story of a seventeen year old girl, Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen), who is coming of age in a deeply conservative evangelical community in rural Kentucky. While we can infer that the story is happening in the present, there is a timelessness to the setting that speaks to how deeply removed these communities are from the rest of the world.
Despite her unusual upbringing, Jem’s problems don’t stray too far from the problems of the average teenage girl: parents who fight, mean girls on her dance team, little sisters that just don’t get it. And so it isn’t a surprise when her anecdote to the small town blues isn’t too dissimilar from any other girl’s: date the bad boy in secrecy.
But in this case, the bad boy in question isn’t just any local knave — Owen is the married, adult son of the pastor.
And this is when the backwoods of Kentucky desaturate and blur into a streak of gray moral space: is Jem a seductress or is Owen a groomer? Can it be both? And what does it mean to enter into moral grayness as someone who believes in absolute truth?
While Parmet didn’t grow up in a deeply religious community, she was inspired to create this film after encountering a group of fundamentalist women and realizing that these questions and issues applied to her life and upbringing as much as they did theirs.
Remarking on the similarities between her teenage years and Jem’s, she said: “I had a similar relationship when I was a teenager with an older man. I had a lot of agency in the relationship, and didn’t see myself as a victim,” Parmet says. “Honestly, when I think about it now, I still don’t know. Some days, I think he took advantage of me. And some days, I think, no, I was mature enough.”
In Parmet’s telling of her own story, that critical word reappears: agency, the ability to act. Perhaps the longing for agency is the most universal part of being seventeen, no matter what systems or individuals may try to strip it away. Teenage girls don’t always have power (the ability to control others) and outside of TikTok they may not have much influence, but the one thing they do have – whether or not anyone wants them to know it – is agency.
The distinctions between agency, power, and influence are perhaps best demonstrated in the parallels between two scenes: Jem defiantly piercing her own ear, and the consummation of her relationship with Owen. When Jem pierces her ear, it feels like empowerment. Owen first offers to do it for her, and when she insists that no, she wants to do it herself, we are gifted with a brief and glorious glimpse of the type of woman Jem may someday become. Accepting pain and risk, she pierces her own flesh with her own hand. It marks the first time she’s ever done anything just because she wanted to. It is a young woman exercising her God-given agency.
Not much later, Jem and Owen rendezvous in his parked truck and what transpires can only be described as him taking her virginity; after all, a grown man is exercising his position of influence to affect a teenage girl’s agency. While Jem is indeed eager to explore her sexuality with Owen, she has no knowledge of what that means in practicality – and the viewer is left feeling that Owen, in his roughness and selfish urgency, has taken more than Jem had the ability to knowingly give. Sex is something that happens to Jem, not something to which she gives her fully formed consent.
Some would point to the fact that she could have said no and didn’t; others will note that she wasn’t held at gunpoint or threatened with her life. It begs the question: if someone
doesn’t know how to say no – or even know they can – did they really have a choice? This is the film’s take on consent, and it is good, difficult, and important.
The symmetry between these two scenes is made creatively excellent by their shared violence. In both the piercing of her ear and the taking of her virginity, Jem encounters pain, blood, and newness. The distinguishing difference between the two is that in life’s many little crucifixions, it matters whose hands are doing the piercing.
The deeper that Jem and Owen descend into their affair, the more Jem’s other relationships and sense of self start to disintegrate. As she loses the ability to control herself (her agency) she becomes desperate to control those around her. In this way, Parmet illustrates the slippery, cylindrical pattern of power.
The film ends with a moment of abandonment of this perverted attempt at power and a reclamation of Jem’s agency: she stops seeking to control others but refuses to let them control her either. From that moment on, her choices – including her choices about her relationship with God, which she continues in a new, more honest way – are up to her.
I won’t ruin the ending. But I will say that for someone who has never been a part of the fundamentalist religious world, Laurel Parmet has done an exceptional job of representing it. She never mocks or condescends, even when raising legitimate questions about patriarchal religious structures, purity culture, and accountability for sexual abuse in church spaces. When we spoke over the phone, she explained to me that in her study of fundamentalist communities and Christian dogma she had been surprised by how much there was that she could respect and admire.
“It’s not a film that blasphemes God, but rather intends to offer a more complex look at religion and faith. To even suggest that there are many ways to connect with God. That maybe God lives in Jem’s questions and desires,” Parmet explained. “[This film] explores empowerment, abuse, faith and the complexities of sexual agency. But it’s ultimately about searching for a sense of self in the face of all the expectations the world places on us. And the dangers and the freedoms that those searches can bring. It’s about finding love within ourselves — even the parts we’re ashamed of — and creating a path on our own terms.”
Great art uses beauty to tell truths too painful for us to accept any other way, and “The Starling Girl” does just that.