It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, but I remember that liminal space known as summer vacation. Days bleeding into each other with no job or commitments that require you to keep track of time, the overbearing heat prompting you to shuffle between the sunny poolside and dim air-conditioned interiors. When we first meet Lea (Lily McInerny), the 17-year-old protagonist of writer/director Jamie Dack’s debut feature film Palm Trees and Power Lines, the boredom radiating off of her is as tangible as the heat radiating off the pavement. Living in a small California town with her single mom (Sandra, played by Gretchen Mol), a real estate agent whose unstable love life frustrates her daughter to no end, Lea spends her summer break tanning by the pool with her friend Amber (Quinn Frankel), lounging in her room watching make-up tutorials on YouTube, getting ice-cream, and walking up and down her neighborhood listening to music, the stretch of power towers looming high above her.
As we watch Lea drift through these opening scenes, Dack—who expanded this film from her 2018 short of the same name—exhibits a strong grasp on teenage behavior. When Lea and her friends hang out, their conversations are juvenile at best, especially those of the boys, who don’t attempt to mask their misogynistic thoughts; and the girls just giggle, going along with it to fit in. But while it’s clear that Lea is often feigning interest (even when she’s having sex with a boy in his car, there’s zero passion on her end), she does have a line. The boys she and Amber hang out with cross it when they are having dinner at a diner and decide to ditch without paying. Lea says she doesn’t want to do that, but she’s the one who gets caught when they flee. She’s rescued by Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a 34-year-old man who caught her eye at the diner earlier in the evening and after the incident offers to take her home. Lea’s initial caution gives way to acceptance, and the night ends with the pair exchanging phone numbers, even after Lea has asked Tom his age. We know that she knows—both from this conversation and her later cageyness about their relationship when talking about it with her friends— that this isn’t right.
And yet, we the audience kind of get why Lea is quick to fall in with Tom. He talks to her and pays attention to what she has to say, unlike the guy she’s been seeing, who we only see showing interest in putting his hands on her. The conversations she has with him about her life, her future, her interests, are wholly different than the shallow interactions we’ve seen her engage in with other teenagers thus far. At the same time—and this is where the brilliance of Dack’s writing and direction comes into play—we see the predatory nature of Tom’s pursuit of Lea, in ways that she doesn’t, or chooses to turn a blind eye to. Dack has stated that she crafted the plot around the five stages of grooming; we witness the story unfold from Lea’s perspective, but while she seems to believe she’s in control, it fast becomes apparent from the lines Tom feeds her (things that any girl would like to hear, like “You really get me,” “You’re not like any girl I know,” promising her that he can give her the life she wants that her friends and absent mom cannot) and the response to their coupling from those around them (at one point while they’re at a restaurant, the waitress comes up to Lea confidentially and asks her if she needs help) that he’s the one manipulating her.
The performances from the leads help this along. Tucker has a glint in his eye and a charming smile that he effectively deploys to show how Tom gets what he wants. McInerny, in a remarkably strong film debut, delicately balances the rush of conflicting emotions confronting Lea. The red flags ramp up as the narrative progresses (at one point, Tom takes her home, and his “home” is a sketchy motel room), but when weighing logic against a passionate romance, Lea chooses to believe in love every time, until it’s too late. In one of the queasiest, most frightening sequences I’ve seen in a movie recently, Lea finds herself violated and trapped in a situation she doesn’t want to participate in, but can’t find a way out of. McInerny’s body language convincingly relays Lea’s fear and uncertainty, while Dack keeps the camera a respectful distance away from the characters involved, never exploiting or sexualizing the nature of her relationship with Tom or the events unfolding on screen.
Just as Dack effectively explores the evolution of the relationship between a groomer and the one being groomed—Lea believing she is giving her consent every step of the way, until suddenly she isn’t—she doesn’t offer a tidy conclusion for her characters either. The gut-punch of a final scene may be difficult to fathom for some, but given the attitude we’ve seen Lea exhibit over the course of the film, it makes much more sense than a conventional split ever would have. As the beginning of Palm Trees and Power Lines evokes the meaningless slippage of summer time and teenage relationships, the finale of Dack’s superior first feature is accompanied by the tangled feelings of a young woman in way over her head, and the hopelessness of the future she’s reaching for.
Palm Trees and Power Lines opens in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on March 3. Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated R.