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Sundance 2022 Review: Palm Trees and Power Lines – “A gut-wrenching look at exploitation and predation”

Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker in Palm Trees and Power Lines, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Never are we perhaps more impressionable and vulnerable than when we are teenagers just trying to figure everything out.  Certainly that is true for Lea (Lily McInerny) in writer-director Jamie Dack’s feature debut Palm Trees and Power Lines.  Adapted, or perhaps evolved, from her 2018 short film of the same name, this film considers the dangers and escalation of a predator’s manipulation and grooming, leading to a shockingly uncomfortable watch.  

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Lea is a seventeen-year-old, wasting away her days of summer vacation, largely drinking or smoking with her group of school friends.  Her mom (Gretchen Mol) is rebounding from a relationship, and either nursing her broken heart or spending time with different men.  Either way, it’s not time that Lea wants to spend at home.  She’s completely aimless, bored of her friends’ immaturity and uncertain of where her future is headed.  So when Tom (Jonathan Tucker) becomes her white knight, rescuing her after an ill-conceived dine and dash with her friends, she takes immediate note of her ‘hero’.

At first, things start off pretty innocently.  Tom gives her his phone number with hesitation upon finding out that Lea is half his age.  They spend time getting to know one another, in his pickup truck or at the beach.  They discuss her dislike of sunsets, their families, his job.  He’s respectful of her, something that she hasn’t experienced with any teenaged boys.  She is attracted not only to him, but his maturity, the way he talks about adulthood and the freedom of making your own choices.  He’s a stark contrast to any man she’s known.  He feels safe.

But that quickly turns as the power dynamic of their relationship changes, from one of mutual consideration to one where Tom is in control.  In her writing, Dack is clear to make this all from Lea’s perspective, to help us understand the decisions she is making.  She takes her time building up to this point so that when Tom finally says, “I don’t want you seeing other guys.  Because you are mine,” we can comprehend that Lea is flattered by this statement, not feeling possessed by it.  This is so important in order to keep the audience behind Lea’s character, because no doubt she does make bad decisions, sometimes ones that make you want to shout at the screen (another benefit of a virtual festival), but when you see how successfully she has been manipulated, that’s when Dack’s film hits home.

That Palm Trees and Power Lines is lead actor Lily McInerny’s first feature seems incomprehensible, but she shows incredible talent.  This film just simply doesn’t work without a young actor capable of portraying Lea’s vulnerability.  She has that know-it-all attitude so common to most of us at that age, yet an innocence that makes you want to be able to save her from the degradation we know is to come.  It makes the film even more jarring as does Tucker’s performance, which is charismatic and charming with that necessary hard edge and darkness under its surface.

Perhaps a tad overlong in its runtime, Palm Trees and Power Lines is still a gut-wrenching look at exploitation and predation.  As a director though, Dack is extremely effective.  She stays away from a score, utilizing silence to make things even more unsettling, yet she maintains a feeling of sensitivity that respects Lea’s character.  Dack does not shy away from this brutal reality, and the film’s conclusion will be apt to leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it’s powerful nevertheless.  The messaging of this cautionary tale is clear, and it’s a tale well told.

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