Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Momentum Pictures releases the film in theaters and VOD on Friday, March 3.
Lea knows the difference between wrong and right. Wrong: the way dudes treat her mom. Wrong: her friends running out on their bill at a local diner. Wrong: getting into a strange man’s truck. But, as has forever been the human condition — and in the case of Jamie Dack’s uncomfortably honest “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” the teenage human condition — knowing is only half the battle, and Lea (a breakout Lily McInerny in a remarkable first feature role) is about to endure quite a battle indeed. Dack, making her feature film debut by expanding her 2018 award-winning short of the same name, uses a familiar tale to shed new light on the coming-of-age drama, and while many of the film’s beats are predictable, that often speaks to the discomfiting universality of the story at hand.
There’s not much going on in Lea’s life when we first meet her. Caught in the liminal space of a suburban high school summer — no school to worry about, but plenty of adult decisions looming — she spends her days listening to music, wandering her dusty neighborhood, and hanging out with her vivacious pal Amber (Quinn Frankel). Her mom (a heartbreaking Gretchen Mol) isn’t exactly a stellar role model, often sleeping in past her own wake-up time (it’s Lea who tries to wake her up), and her dad is nowhere to be found. The boys her age are self-obsessed, silly, even boring, and while Lea isn’t inexperienced when it comes to sex, it doesn’t seem like something she particularly enjoys, instead turning to it as yet another snoozy pastime.
Nothing, it seems, is going to change. Until everything does. On a night like any other — Amber, the boring boys, a French fry-laden trip to the diner — Lea’s obvious moral compass is thrown into disarray. That’s the night the boys duck out on the check, the night Lea tries her hardest to keep them from ditching, the night she’s almost roughed up by a righteously pissed off line cook and waitress. It’s the night she meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker). The power dynamic between the pair is clear from the start, long before we realize that the buff stranger is fully twice Lea’s age (or, at least, the age she’s willing to tell him), long before Lea allows herself to realize how very bad that is. When Tom saves her from the angry diner staff, it sets into motion something new and, to Lea at least, very welcome: someone who can protect her, someone who is on her side, someone different.
The path is set as the pair start spending more time together, Lea’s reticence to getting into Tom’s truck so gently sanded away that neither she, nor the audience, are likely to spot the exact moment she relents. That Lea and Tom’s relationship is everything from inappropriate and probably illegal to poisoned and toxic is never in question, at least to the audience, but Dack’s film succeeds in pushing through the familiar grammar and patterns of the film to deliver a drama that still punches hard. And that Dack ends the film with one final jab speaks to her interest in subverting expectations, even as “Palm Trees and Power Lines” occasionally slips into them.
Dack and cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj shot the film in the flat, airless colors of the suburban strip mall, though the film’s look and feel come to blazing life in the moments in which Lea herself sparks, from a sun-drenched trip to the beach with Tom to a hotel-set rendezvous that, seen from Lea’s perspective, isn’t grimy (oh, but it is) and somehow feels magical and romantic. Such is the tension of the film, as that push-pull between the creepy and the dreamy ratchets up through a somewhat meandering second act, with Lea seeing things one way, and the rest of us seeing things entirely differently.
As the red flags keep flying, McInerny keeps remarkable control over Lea. You’ll want to scream at the screen, but the young actress is so fully vested in her character that you also can’t help but eagerly anticipate whatever she will do next, as likely terrifying as it may be. Throughout the film, both Dack and her revelatory star teeter through shifting concepts, black and white, yes and no, that only grow more jarring and tense as “Palm Trees and Power Lines” unfolds. You might know where this is going, but Dack and McInerny ensure you can’t predict how it will feel, right or wrong.
“Palm Trees and Power Lines” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
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