Finding one’s true place in the world can sometimes be off-putting. Where do we fit in? Where’s our posse? These are deep questions and while they’re certainly at the forefront of 17-year-old Jem Starling’s (Eliza Scanlen) mind in The Starling Girl, they only become amplified when her bond with Owen (Lewis Pullman), a youth pastor more than 10 years her senior, suddenly deepens in ways she never anticipated.
The Starling Girl is a triumphant outing from writer-director Laurel Parmet, who created the story based on her own real-life experiences. As Jem struggles to understand her place within her fundamentalist Christian community in rural Kentucky, she also finds herself having to balance the allure and inappropriateness of her relationship with Owen and the morally shaky ground they both suddenly seem to find themselves standing on. This tender yet thoroughly captivating coming-of-age tale also stars Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams, and Jimmi Simpson. Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman shared more about their powerful roles with MovieWeb.
Eliza Scanlan Takes on a Complex Character
Eliza Scanlen was immediately drawn to the character of Jem Starling when she read the script for The Starling Girl. Jem was a fascinating and complex character. Her Christian fundamentalist parents operate within strict religious guidelines. Everything truly revolves around their core Christian beliefs.
“I was really drawn to the script because Jem is such a full character,” said Scanlen. “And when you’re working in an ensemble cast, and playing an ensemble character, you have very select opportunities to illustrate your character. And this film is so rooted in Jem’s perspective. Each scene was a challenge, and I was really excited by that. I was also very drawn to the subject matter, and the various themes the film explores. It has so much depth and nuance. And I was quite surprised by the script, because on the surface, it does seem like a genre film that’s been done before, but it’s really not.”
Jem is attempting to understand her place in the world. When Owen returns from a trip, she can’t help but be drawn to the soulful youth pastor. When asked about why this was the best time for a movie like this to be released — a film which explored the themes of fundamentalism and a morally questionable relationship — Scanlan was candid.
“I think that the public discourse about religion and the church as an institution is quite scathing, and for good reason,” she noted. “There are issues in the church, but this is an interesting film because it tries to not make any kind of moral statement on the church as an institution. It tries to not mock religion. It’s not condemning religion in any way. It actually is trying to show that religion can be a beautiful thing and faith can be beautiful thing.”
“There are many different ways to express your devotion,” added Scanlen. “The film is non-judgmental, which I really liked. But at the same time, it explored the ramifications of church abuse and how in a lot of these Christian fundamentalist churches, they operate under a patriarchal system that hurts women and also deprives men to have things that they love. So, to me, this film just felt like a more nuanced conversation, a conversation starter, I guess.”
Lewis Pullman on His Demanding Role
No doubt viewers have already found plenty of reasons to appreciate Lewis Pullman. Lewis and his father, Bill Pullman (The Sinner, Independence Day), are embraceable actors, even when they’re playing roles that aren’t always sugary sweet. You may have seen Lewis Pullman in The Strangers: Prey at Night and Bad Times at the El Royale. His recurring role as Major Major in the miniseries Catch-22 also stood out, and his recent turn as Lt. Robert “Bob” Floyd in Top Gun: Maverick further captured attention.
As Owen Taylor in The Starling Girl, Pullman admitted that the complexities of his role were vast. Owen is a youth pastor, he’s unhappily married, and he’s more than 10 years old than 17-year-old Eliza. Yet, their connection is unique. Still, even Pullman realized that it was challenging to unwrap the many intricacies of the role and making his character believable, embraceable, and relatable.
“It was all quite challenging for me, but in the best way possible,” he explained. “I tried not to think too clinically about it, but it’s also impossible not to ask, ‘What is Owen’s purpose within the story?’ In this story, every character has a purpose to drive the protagonist in one direction or the other. Owen is in a position of power, right? So, instantly, everything he does to push the relationship forward is an abuse of power, because Jem is 17. And he’s in his late twenties. So that alone was an interesting thing to try to step into. Why would somebody allow themselves to do that?”
Fortunately, the deeply layered and impressive script had the blueprints laid for him. Owen is distraught. He feels alienated in his community. Nobody really sees or understands him. “And all of a sudden, this person comes along who does and who is so enthusiastic about it; somebody who has this bright light about them, and this sense of possibility,” added Pullman. He continued:
“And it’s so intoxicating. So, the theme of temptation is massive throughout this whole film. So, to try and live in that and paint that in a way that doesn’t dehumanize him or take away his agency as a person — that was a challenge. Owen is human, and he’s capable of making all sorts of mistakes, like we all are.”
As for working with Eliza Scanlen, whose work in Sharp Objects and Little Women turned heads, Pullman shared: “Working with Eliza is like a dream collaboration because she’s an incredibly immersive actor, an artist and creative mind. When you’re working with somebody who’s pretty much incapable of singing a false note, it automatically draws you into the moment, and it makes you feel like the illusion is alive. She really led this ship so admirably.”
From Bleecker Street, The Starling Girl is playing in theaters May 19.