PALM TREES AND POWER LINES – Review by Loren King
This superb, clear-eyed debut feature from writer-director Jamie Dack is a dark and complicated story of how easily a vulnerable and lonely teenage girl can fall prey to a predatory, manipulative older man. It’s an old story but rarely told with such deliberate pacing and focus, putting the viewer in the skin of 17 year-old Lea (a stunning performance from newcomer Lily McInerny).
Bored with her teen world of idle banter, selfies, casual hookups and beer drinking, neglected by her single, working mom (Gretchen Mol, excellent) who’s dating a series of men, it’s not surprising that the yearning Leah would be flattered by attention from Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a 34 year-old who gives Lea a ride in his pickup.
For the audience, of course, the red flags are immediate as Tom pursues, charms and gets creepily possessive all while whispering to Lea that they were meant for each other. He casually but tellingly asks about her parents and when Lea confides that she is barely supervised, offers, “Some people shouldn’t be parents.” Lea sees this as honest and understanding; she even spits the line back to her mother.
It’s impossible to turn away from this compelling film but impossible not to watch with a sense of dread. McInerny is a natural who is well cast. She nails what 17 really looks like in appearance and demeanor — an insecure, naïve, awkward kid raised on social media who’s hungry for someone to pay attention to her and easily enamored of a “cool” guy. That such vulnerability is so casually exploited is the film’s unwavering course, particularly as it progresses into its horrifying third act.
Two recent indie films, Charlene Favier’s Slalom and Jeanne Leblanc’s Les Notres, mined similar terrain in examining narcissistic, puffed up, predatory men. Palm Trees and Power Lines does that and more as it unfolds into a truly menacing moment made even more stomach-turning because we sensed it coming and because Dack never flinches from showing the cruel banality of sexual exploitation.