Palm Trees and Power Lines, 2022.
Written and Directed by Jamie Dack.
Starring Lily McInerny, Jonathan Tucker, and Gretchen Mol.
A disconnected teenage girl enters a relationship with a man twice her age. She sees him as the solution to all her problems, but his intentions are not what they seem.
Jamie Dack’s feature debut Palm Trees and Power Lines, adapting her 2018 short of the same name, is likely to be one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Sundance, both in marking startling big-screen arrivals of an assured filmmaker and skilled lead actress, and for its boldly discomforting depiction of an abusive relationship.
17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) is a disaffected youth, having long grown lethargic from the countless aimless hang-outs with her drunk pals and dispassionate trysts with guys in the backs of cars. But when a spontaneous dine-and-dash incident goes wrong, she finds a much older man, 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker), springing eagerly to her defense.
Tom offers to drive Lea home, and such begins the formation of an uneasy relationship in which Lea receives the focused, seemingly mature attention she’s been craving, albeit while keeping the romance secret from her preoccupied mother (Gretchen Mol). Even beyond the inherently inappropriate age dynamics at play, it’s clear that Tom’s hiding something; we quickly get the sense this isn’t his first time preying on a young girl, and most assuredly that it probably won’t end well.
Dack’s film will inevitably draw comparisons to Sean Baker’s recent Red Rocket; the subject matter is certainly markedly similar in terms of exploring a predatory relationship. Oddly enough it also has an early scene set in a similar-looking donut shop, and like that film’s young girl, Lea has an aptitude for musical performance.
What most explicitly differentiates this from Baker’s work is its angle and perspective; Red Rocket took the viewpoint of the predator while this film unfolds through the eyes of the “prey.” It also has none of Baker’s darkly comedic proclivities, offering a more straight-laced, dead-serious look at grooming and sexual possessiveness.
There’s a cutting emotional, psychological plausibility to Dack’s story and script with Audrey Findlay throughout; from early on, Tom’s mechanisms of control are transparently obvious to us, the likely-older audience. The compliments, the subtle means of feeding off the unpleasantness in her life and using it to draw her further towards him, turning her against her friends, and even making her reliant on him financially.
Lea, as any impressionable teen in the presence of a seemingly wise, charming older individual would, absorbs his philosophies like a sponge, in one moment cruelly parroting to her oft-absent mother, “Some people aren’t supposed to have kids.” Unaware of the multi-faceted means through which Tom is manipulating her, joy beams across Lea’s face, her sense of self appearing to bloom albeit while founded on a slyly curdling relationship doomed to implode one way or another.
And that tension, of waiting for the other shoe to drop, defines much of Palm Trees and Power Lines‘ runtime, exacerbated by Dack’s refusal to play the scenario in broad or even cartoonish strokes. As such it isn’t clear for a long, long time quite what Tom’s true endgame is.
The squirm-inducing eventuality of their relationship is sure to leave most disturbed, and that’s entirely the point of course. What follows is a frank yet not particularly gratuitous account of all-encompassing control, and while some may feel that certain situations could’ve been cut away from earlier, it is searingly effective all the same. Most importantly, right up to its brutal finale this story feels painfully real.
Equally important to the quality storytelling is the tenacity of the two central performances, which only heighten the crushing authenticity of the piece. In surely one of the most attention-grabbing acting debuts of recent years, Lily McInerny gives a performance of mesmerising control, of a girl grappling with a stew of joy and anxiety about both her relationship and place in the world. Dack shrewdly shoots McIerny in close-up during many key, harrowing moments, and she in turn delivers a performance that feels remarkably lived-in.
Playing a scarcely less-difficult role is Kingdom star Jonathan Tucker as Tom, giving a skin-crawlingly persuasive performance as a superficial charmer whose friendly face belies a loaded piercing gaze and darkened heart. It’s a tough part to play without descending into caricature, especially once the particulars of his story are fully known, but Tucker carries it off without a hint of rehearsed mannerism. Gretchen Mol also turns in solid work as Lea’s embattled mother, though is ultimately only a small piece of a puzzle focused intently on its central relationship dynamic.
Pulling together the beautiful script and tightly calibrated performances is a sharp technical package, offering a slightly washed-out visage of California that Dack designed to evoke the aesthetic of her own 35mm photography of the region. Dack also has a clear instinct for when to move the camera and not; one especially agonising late-film interaction is largely captured with a locked off-camera and proves all the more nauseatingly visceral for it.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is a film not easily shaken and may ultimately prove too queasy for some audiences – more for its emotionally graphic nature than physical – but those who watch it may well be moved to both fury and overwhelming empathy by the all-too-believable situation it demonstrates. This is a raw, upsetting, and exceptionally acted depiction of the means through which predators can weaponise loneliness and discontent to groom young people.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.