THE WORD “SELFISH” is used many times throughout writer-director Laurel Parmet’s coming-of-age film The Starling Girl. Seventeen-year-old Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen) hears it most often from her parents. Her father (Jimmi Simpson) uses the word to describe the period of his life before he got saved and gave up drinking. Her mother (Wrenn Schmidt) chides Jem for selfishness when she isn’t performing her duties at home. And at church, congregants direct the insult at Jem whenever her performance in the worship dance troupe pulls attention toward herself and away from God.
This understanding of “selfishness” dismisses the community members’ unmet needs. Jem, like most teenagers, is starting to consider what kind of person she’ll become. However, the only guidance she’s getting is from her fundamentalist church, which advises her to give up her dreams, fear her changing body, and let her church decide who she’ll marry. It’s no wonder that Jem’s thoughts turn increasingly to the only person who gives her positive, albeit problematic, attention: the youth leader, Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the married son of her church’s pastor.
The Starling Girl is an empathetic portrait of the vulnerability and power of young women. It shows what can happen when the structures around them — family, church, patriarchy — limit that power and stifle their desires and dreams. This leads Jem to a sexual relationship with the similarly frustrated Owen, who’s drawn to Jem’s seemingly boundless potential.