Palm Trees and Power Lines, Jamie Dack’s subtle debut about the relationship between a teenage girl and a man twice her age, operates in whispers and suggestions. Fleeting glances, nearly undetectable changes in body language, a haunting shift in tone and deliberate silences come together to form an unnerving examination of consent and predation.
The film opens with scenes of summer, observing 17-year-old Lea (a striking Lily McInerny) drifting through the lazy, humid days before school resumes. She takes long walks humming tunes to herself, sunbathes in her backyard with her friend and watches online make-up tutorials, attempting to achieve the elusively “fresh, dewy, not too much” look.
Palm Trees and Power Lines
A subtle and distressing portrayal of predation.
Lea moves through the world without affect — bored, restless and uninspired by friends and family. She doesn’t respect her mother, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), an anxious realtor who looks to the string of bland men she dates to define and satisfy her. Nor is Lea particularly interested in her peers, who pass their vacation days days lounging on the beach and spend nights smoking and drinking.
In these opening sections, Dack, along with cowriter Audrey Findlay and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, conjures an aching portrait of estrangement without a trace of condescension or sentimentality. The film’s visual language inverts the glowing, hyper-femme style of photographer Petra Collins: There is nothing dreamy about the lives of the teens in Palm Trees and Power Lines.
Lea’s boredom is palpable. It’s no wonder, then, that she finds herself drawn to Tom, a mysterious older man played with disturbing brilliance by Jonathan Tucker. They first encounter each other at a local diner, where Lea and her friends are about to skip out on a bill. As Tom is leaving, he winks at the teen — a gesture that chills the viewer but flatters her. When Lea and her friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) get caught leaving the restaurant without paying (the boys in the group escaped without a hitch), Tom emerges from the shadows to intervene. He confronts the restaurant employee for chasing the girls and hitting Lea, and then offers the latter a ride home. (Amber has long run off.)
Well-versed in the language of stranger danger, Lea smartly rejects Tom’s offer. But he insists that he will have to keep her company and drive alongside her. His persistence wears her down, and Lea eventually lowers her defenses. Her walls all but crumble after Tom guesses her favorite genre of music. The two begin a flirtation, one unperturbed by their staggering age difference: Lea is 17 and Tom is 34.
McInerny and Tucker’s strong performances walk a delicate tightrope, making the duo’s interactions unsettlingly realistic; the actors mirror the endearing awkwardness of any courting stage without losing sight of the terrifying nature of this one. Tom takes a keen interest in Lea, asking her questions about her interests and aspirations. These inquiries surprise the teen, whose shallow interactions with friends and family have left her understandably emotionally bereft.
Dack sidesteps the pitfalls of many meditations on similar themes by keeping the narrative locked in Lea’s perspective. The camera’s gaze is consistently sympathetic, never exploitative, naïve or cruel to the young woman’s experience. The film, for the most part, traces the steps of grooming, and so while many viewers will recognize the ways in which Tom manipulates and coerces Lea, the young teen doesn’t. One discomfiting scene between Lea and her mother, in which the former uncritically parrots a phrase Tom used, reveals the depths of the man’s influence on her.
Palm Trees and Power Lines moves at a deliberate pace, and as Lea falls deeper in what she believes is love with Tom, she becomes further disenchanted with and withdrawn from her previous life. She avoids her friends and lies to her mother about her whereabouts. The days she spends with Tom in his motel room, where he claims to live, begin to bleed together. Time loses meaning and the stakes of this relationship become clearer as the narrative heads toward its disturbing third act.
Dack’s spare narrative raised questions for me, especially about place, class, race and vulnerability in conversations and stories of sexual predation and consent. It’s a gift when a film wrestling with a distressing subject inspires further subtextual inquiries and considerations. With its stark portrayal of abuse, Palm Trees and Power Lines won’t be for everyone. But the director’s assured approach to a thorny topic, the way she needles at assumptions about grooming and the care with which she treats Lea’s story will linger with me for a long while.