A warning to young girls and a reminder that there are some really sh**y people out there, Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees and Power Lines will slowly make you shiver at your core.
With a breakout performance by Lily McInerny, Dack’s film (co-written with Audrey Findlay) concerns a disaffected seventeen-year-old named Lea (played by McInerny) who meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a thirty-something man who begins to groom her.
Coming from a single-parent household, Lea is a typical teenage grump – a clear result of her mother, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), being desperate for the attention of men. Taking a cue from the ever-revolving door of dates her mother has, Lea soon catches the eye of Tom, who gives her a warm smile at a local diner. She doesn’t think much of it at the time. But after a fight with her boyfriend, he suddenly shows up at just the right moment to drive her home.
And he does just that and only that. He doesn’t make a move. He doesn’t do much more than act kindly toward her and ask her about herself. When the two run into each other a few more times, they begin a friendship. While this is a huge red flag to an adult, for a girl just wanting to be heard, he’s the ear she needs.
Having a newfound sense of independence from her mother and friends, Lea pivots to spend all her time with Tom. And while he appears just to be a “big brother” figure, the attraction for both is clear, and the two move to a more intimate relationship.
But her best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) does warn her that something seems off. However, as teenagers do, Lea brushes it off because only “she” knows him. No one else could possibly understand. So, the relationship grows, and as her frustration with her mom and friends hits a breaking point, Lea decides to run off with Tom, who becomes more and more controlling. And even though she recognizes it, she’s in too deep and desperate not to be wrong about him.
That’s when things get worse.
Palm Trees and Power Lines plays like an updated, modern version of the Laura Dern/Treat Williams 1986 film Smooth Talk, which is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” There, a disaffected girl who isn’t getting along with her mother or sister tries to establish her independence by dressing provocatively and doing everything her mother doesn’t want her to do. Eventually, she meets an older man who takes a liking to her and eventually spends an afternoon grooming her to do what he wants.
This film goes darker, but the themes and the warning are the same.
Dack does a beautiful job with her actors, keeping them grounded in an almost documentarian acting style. The people and places feel lived in and real. McInerny never overdoes it with her character’s anger at her mom, and she navigates her own suspicions of Tom while wrestling her teenage needs to be wanted and seen.
Tucker is no stranger to being a bad guy, but he plays it smooth and controlled here. We understand why Lea would be intrigued by him and even trust him because the danger that lurks behind his intentions is subtle. Until it’s not.
The script is solid and consistently engaging, making our insides cringe, and our toes curl with worry. Lea could easily be someone you know. She’s not stupid, but she’s a product of her upbringing, and with that, she has needs and wants she will do whatever it takes to be fulfilled. Even if it means compromising herself.
While ‘Palm Trees’ isn’t the feel-good movie of 2023, it’s a film to appreciate for its characterizations and performances, even when we want to scream at the screen for Lea to run away.
That said, the last moment of the film will break your heart.