The Starling Girl: Is the Movie Inspired by Real Life?

‘The Starling Girl’ is a drama film that revolves around Jem Starling, a 17-year-old teenager living in a fundamentalist Christian community. Though a devout Christian, Jem is also starting to feel new emotions and gain new experiences at the same time, all of which conflict with her religious upbringing. Doing her best to juggle between her community and her own desires, will the young girl be able to find herself?

Directed by Laurel Parmet, the film stars Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams, and Kyle Secor. There are many instances of people living in extremely religious communities that have been covered in all forms of media, and ‘The Starling Girl’ is one such story. But is there any real-life inspiration behind the movie or is it based on true events? Let’s find out together!

The Starling Girl: Fictional Tale with Real Inspirational Roots

No, ‘The Starling Girl’ is not a true story. However, the writer of the screenplay, director Laurel Parmet herself, was inspired by her time spent within a fundamentalist Christian community and one particular experience of her own. Parmet told Filmmaker magazine that she began working on the film in 2017 and became interested in fundamentalist Christian communities while researching for a different project in Oklahoma.

Parmet explained, “I was attending a lot of rodeos, [and] met a group of women from a patriarchal fundamentalist church and became interested in their beliefs, even if I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to make a film set in that world. I spent some time with these women, went to their church and soon learned that they believed that their desires were sinful.” At the time, she believed herself to be lucky to be living in a modern society, unlike the women she had encountered after hearing about a woman in the community who had an affair with a Church authority, and was blamed for the entire thing.

However, Parmet soon realized that the women and her weren’t all that different. “The more I thought about it, the more I saw how much we actually had in common, in terms of how we grew up, our relationships with our bodies and what society teaches us to feel about our desires,” the writer-director added. Much like the director’s encounter with this story, Jem Starling, the protagonist of the film, also has a similar affair with Owen, a man who is well into his 20s and who is married on top of it. But when her parents find out about it, Jem is blamed for the whole ordeal and told that she seduced the pastor.

The aforementioned point in the story is particularly linked with Parmet on a more personal level. Speaking about her relationship as a teenager with a much older man with Deadline, Parmet said, “At the time I didn’t feel like a victim about it and I thought that I had a lot of agency in the relationship. And after it ended, I had a lot of guilt.” After speaking with the women in the Christian community, the director realized just how much guilt she had internalized when the relationship came to an end and how shameful she felt at the time.

Taking on the lead role in a film that embodies women’s sexual repression and their own relationships with their bodies in a highly patriarchal society is not such an easy task. There are various expectations that come with such a role, but Eliza Scanlen meets them with grace on-screen. When asked about what attracted her to the character of Jem Starling, the actress told Screen Rant, “I think Jem has a fire to her and I found that really intriguing, and I think within the context of a fundamentalist Christian church it was an interesting kind of quality to explore because it had to restrained in some ways, but also like, find the right moments to show it [the fire] with Jem.”

Aside from the characters, the location in which the film was captured in also plays a major role in selling the realism of ‘The Starling Girl.’ According to Laurel Parmet, shooting the majority of the film really established the story’s setting in a fundamentalist church for the audience. “The film is set in a community that is oppressed at the times, but I didn’t want to push that visually so much, because we get it. It’s a difficult place to grow up in for Jem at times, and I didn’t need to hit the audience over the head with that visually,” she said.

Parmet added, “I wanted to offer another side of her world that is beautiful because there’s a lot that’s really lovely about tight-knit communities and about faith and about growing up in a place outside of a mainstream city.” Though not a true story, the issues that the film addresses — women’s bodies as they are growing up, their sexual awareness and needs, victim blaming, and the lack of control they have over their own self in a patriarchal society — are all things that have been discussed and fought for for decades now. It is this dose of reality, combined with a wonderful story and a brilliant cast, that makes ‘The Starling Girl’ worth watching.

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