The tragic coming-of-age drama Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022) illustrates the dynamics between prey and predator through a slow-burn simmer of a movie, anchored by two complex roles from Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker.
Cinema has been inch-by-inch expanding the range of drama films that reveal the haunting reality of being a teen these days. Teenage girls in particular, for whom the sexualized world around preys on naivety and inexperience, are left vulnerable to victimizers who look for ways to exploit and abuse. No wonder why series such as Euphoria (2019-) gain popularity at such a breakneck pace. Drugs, sex, and abuse creep into adolescent lives through new gateways of social media, propelling the FOMO effect among those who haven’t lost virginity yet or tasted the trip everyone else has already tried. Some filmmakers disguise this worrying phenomenon as comedy. Take Sex Education (2019-) as an example of unraveling taboo without cringe or boilerplate writing. Others, like Mimi Cave’s Fresh (2022) from this edition of Sundance, choose the path of gore to convey the message.
Yet the most alarming topic that keeps coming back like a boomerang is sexual abuse. Unbelievable (2019) burrowed into misconceptions and prejudices regarding victims of abuse, while Never Rare Sometimes Always (2020), an unsettling abortion drama, hinted at the problem in between the lines.
Jamie Deck’s Palm film Trees And Power Lines (2022) bears resemblance to both, yet the Sundance-festival gossip compared it to Red Rocket (2021) on the sideline. It is, in many ways, an ace-in-the-hole comparison. Sean Baker’s story elevated the legally doubtful relationship of an ex-porn actor with an underage girl to an infatuating romance, as well as semi-comedy, semi-drama about losing your path in life. Jamie Deck turns the concept around, perspective-wise and tone-wise. Her film deploys a more deadpan story, as well as far more mortifying consequences of getting too close to a predator.
In the center of Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022) is Lea (Lily McInerny), a jaded teenager who has trouble connecting with peers, as well as her mother (Gretchen Mol). Lea spends her summer without any adventure or purpose, either glued to a phone screen or lazily sunbathing in the garden. That is until one day she meets her white knight Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a twice-her-age virile type who stands in the way of an angry restaurant manager’s hand that is about to hit Lea. Just two scenes earlier, Tom picks Lea’s interest with a wink, but the subliminal message of this fleeting moment reverses its meaning along the way. So, Tom follows the girl, and the two start dating.
Deck avoids a trope of a fling that abruptly turns ugly. Lea’s prerogative to seek a bewildering adventure is acknowledged, yet Deck emphasizes who controls the pacing. Not only does the first impression moment click – a true macho move that sways Lea – but the entire relationship progresses in an almost laboratory manner, like a spider that weaves a sticky web with cruel patience. Tom’s sleazy, yet calculated nature offers a very persuasive method of making us feel pinched because we doubt every drop of honey he spills in Lea’s ears. Needless to say, that’s due to Jonathan Tucker’s impressionable role, built on a ridiculous amount of self-discipline when it comes to body language.
Lily McInerny sells the reciprocal affection with deep honesty of a girl who wants to feel special and noticed, alas the signs revealing Tom’s true intentions – while far from obvious – aren’t that perfectly cloaked either. She’s rickety-looking, hence even Tucker’s physique emphasizes the way Tom dominates Lea. Red flags are written all over this beau, in the disgusting, penetrating eyes that assess Lea’s body as well as how Tom uses various techniques of manipulation and domination on her. And yet McInerny plays along, adding depth to a character that’s first introduced as a spoiled brat that’s just bored. Lea then begins to notice the trap, and yet still constitutes an example of failed, rushed emancipation – a puppy that wants to play with the snake, so it’ll swat the reptile a few times before losing the brakes.
At the same time, Deck doesn’t let Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022) seem too obvious either. While Tom is clearly not a decent guy, Deck provides reasons for this selective blindness exhibited by Lea – it might be Lea’s careless mother whose weekly calendar explodes with random dates. Other times it is the clique that Lea hangs out with but doesn’t fancy all that much. So, in this depressingly dull world, Tom constitutes the forbidden fruit that promises a way out of this lethargy. Red flags being red flags, he makes her feel noticed.
Above might sound like an appalling, edgy film, and indeed, the proceedings reach a point of no return – a climax scene that’s designed to evoke bone-deep unease. And by bone-deep, I mean a scene that’s hard to watch because of how smart Deck’s direction is when joined by an intimate, uncut shot from DP Chananun Chotrungroj. By the time the scene concludes, Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022) already turns into a devastating tale of predatory abuse. Then, the script takes an even more body-slam turn at the very end. Mind control and abuse come full circle with a scene that leaves viewers angry. Angry at the system that allowed for this to happen. Angry at the world that begets men like Tom.
Despite the beautiful sunset that ornaments the last shot of Palm Trees And Power Lines (2022), there’s nothing but darkness left in it.