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Review: The teen drama ‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’ tells a searing story of abuse


When we first meet Lea (Lily McInerny), the shy, alert 17-year-old protagonist of “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” she’s wandering alone at sunset, listening to music and lost in thought. Those power lines stretch into the distance behind her, a dull symbol of suburban American anomie; in one upward shot, they briefly appear to form the bars of a cage. Another summer is coming and Lea has been doing the same things day in and day out: sunbathing, smoking, staring at her phone, making snappy remarks and grumpy looks at her well-meaning single mom (a hot Gretchen Mole) and most of all wasting time with the teens whom she calls her friends.

They’re not really her friends, with the possible exception of Amber (Quinn Frankel), the less-than-reliable boyfriend she trades secrets and gossip with. One of the secondary subjects of this tough, engaging, carefully controlled film is the creeping emptiness of so much of today’s teen culture – a culture Lea participates in without having a sense of it at all. Sure, she drinks with the other kids, laughs at their silly, raunchy jokes, and even casually hooks up with one of them. But as the man in his backseat claws at her, the camera focuses on Lea’s dark, watchful eyes and registers a flash of something between boredom and fear: a nagging fear that life will never get much more exciting or meaningful than this.

She’s not quite right, though she may wish she had. Directed by Jamie Dack, who based it on her 2018 short film of the same name, “Palm Trees and Power Lines” begins as a depressive snapshot of youthful boredom and soon becomes a grim, gripping tale of rapacity and abuse. That actual story begins when a group food and drink attempt goes awry and Lea, the only one with enough moral sense to object to the prank, is predictably left with the bag. That’s when a man named Tom (Jonathan Tucker) seemingly comes to her rescue. After fending off a restaurant worker, he chases after Lea, pulls up next to her in his pickup and gives her a ride home. Tom is assertive and good looking; he’s also 34, something he reveals with a candor that’s disarming but also deceptive in its own way. He has more to hide than the fact that he is twice her age.

Seventeen-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) seeks an escape from her everyday reality in ‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’.

(Momentum Photos)

But Lea is intrigued, flattered and, as their initial flirtation grows into something more, increasingly enamored and eventually seduced. She’s smart enough to know that her relationship with Tom is wrong, which of course makes it all the more attractive. The thrill of the forbidden, plus the gift of the generous, undivided attention of an older man, promises an escape from her mundane reality – and especially from her ignorant mother and mocking friends, none of whom she tells about her new boyfriend. She doesn’t realize that when Tom tells her how special she is, and how unworthy of her those friends and relatives are, he isn’t building her up; he sets a trap.

I’m reluctant to discuss the full scope of Tom’s agenda, especially since “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” which Dack co-wrote with Audrey Findlay, rests largely on the tension between how much Lea knows or suspects, and how much we in the audience do. . You get a hunch when Tom describes himself as self-employed, and more than a hunch when he takes her to his house and it turns out to be a run-down motel room. Lea registers each of these red flags with hesitation and shock, but she also continues to stare at Tom with a palpable need for reassurance, tenderness and love – conflicting reactions that become painfully mingled in McInerny’s quietly revealing turn. Lea’s emotional confusion is all too obvious, even (or especially) when she tries to suppress it, when she tries to respond to Tom’s suggestions with adult nonchalance.

Tucker, for his part, gives a flawless tightrope walk of a performance, one that could take on an extra layer of sinister resonance for those who remember him as a beleaguered 17-year-old self in 2001’s “The Deep End.” dispelling Leah’s fears is ultimately exactly what’s scariest about him: he always knows what to say, always knows how to dismiss or dispel her objections, be it with an apology, a gift, or an expression of tenderness. Like the proverbial slow-boiling pot of water for Lea’s innocent frog, he knows how to temper his sleaze with just enough warmth and affection to keep his target from going on a rampage.

Jonathan Tucker and Lily McInerny "Palm trees and power lines."

Jonathan Tucker and Lily McInerny in ‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’.

(Momentum Photos)

But Dack, whose methodical direction won her an award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, never lets us fall under Tom’s spell, or completely lose ourselves in Lea’s perspective. There’s a disturbing edge – sometimes clinical, sometimes transactional – to the way the director and her cinematographer, Chananun Chotrungroj, frame Lea and Tom’s conversations. Sometimes they place the two characters side by side in a medium shot, a choice that undermines rather than deepens their intimacy. At times, Tom’s head is menacingly chopped off at the top of the frame, as if to underline how small and vulnerable Lea is. The filmmaking maintains its discretion and unblinking restraint even in the most terrifying passage, filmed with an unrelenting composure that makes it all the more excruciating.

What will become of Leah? And even if she did escape, how much escape would that be given the excuse for the everyday normalcy that awaits her? There are no encouraging answers to these questions, and Dack’s rigorous, brutal honesty is both a measure and perhaps a limitation of her film’s power. If “Palm Trees and Power Lines” is a cautionary tale, it’s one that can feel trapped by its own bleak case-study detachment, especially when it unleashes its gut-wrenching ending. The last time we see each other, Lea can’t help but think back wistfully to the first time, when she was alone, lost in her thoughts – and yet somehow much less alone.

‘Palm trees and power lines’

Judgement: R, for disruptive material, sexual assault, sexual content, drug/alcohol use, and language — all related to teens

Duration: 1 hour, 50 minutes

To play: 7 Laemmle NoHo, North Hollywood

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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