Palm Trees and Power Lines

Seventeen year-old Lea’s (Lily McInerny) mom Sandra (Gretchen Mol, HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire') is too involved with her revolving string of boyfriends to pay much attention to her daughter’s whereabouts, which are usually spent sunbathing with Amber (Quinn Frankel) or having sex in Jared’s (Timothy Taratchila) back seat. When Jared and his buddies ditch the girls in a diner without paying the check, an older guy, Tom (Jonathan Tucker, "The Deep End," "The Ruins"), takes notice, giving Lea the type of attention she’s never had in “Palm Trees and Power Lines.”

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriter (with Audrey Findlay)/director Jamie Dack won Best Director at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival for her first narrative feature, an adaptation of her 2018 short.  The filmmaker has not only produced a work of great subtlety built upon relatable human behavior, but has shepherded inexperienced young actors like McInerny into impressively naturalistic performances.  She also addresses a serious issue by demonstrating how even a somewhat savvy teen can ignore red flags in the hands of a skilled operator.  Dack’s film may be the best of its kind since Joyce Chopra’s 1985 “Smooth Talk” and in many ways is the more dramatic side of Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket.”

Like that film, this one takes place in a coastal area where teens hang in donut shops, Amanda amusing Lea performing sexually suggestive deeds on her cream-filled.  But thirty-four year-old Tom isn’t as honest about how he sees his and Lea’s future as “Red Rocket’s” porn star Mikey was with Strawberry, instead offering aid, flattering her and sharing tales of familial dysfunction (she’ll turn his ‘some people shouldn’t have kids’ line around on her mother later).  Tom is so adept at reeling Lea in, it will be she who suggests they ‘go to his place.’

It is here that Dack just about sent my heart into my throat, cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj’s initial glimpses of his motel making it look like a storage facility.  And while the actual location does give Lea pause, Tom explains it all away easily enough as temporary accommodations.  He’s got an explanation at the ready for everything that happens, even for the diner waitress (Yolanda Corrales) who tries to warn Lea, right up until the point where he has her just where he wants her.           

Sporting a mustache, the trim Tucker has the kind of look that weaves between angelic and sleazy and the actor pulls us towards the former with his soft-spoken, gentlemanly behavior.  When, encouraged by Lea, Tom’s behavior turns sexual, Tucker ensures his conduct is not only gentle, but just short of awestruck.  Even during the film’s shattering climactic reveal, Tucker never ladles the villainy on too thick, firmness and implied collusion his modus operandi, the better for Dack’s coda to convince.  McInerny, whose only prior experience was playing a stoner in a music video, delivers a true breakthrough performance here, allowing us to experience events through her character’s wary-but-not-wary-enough eyes.  Dack will shoot McInerny having sex three times and McInerny conveys a thoroughly different expression on her face as her experience progresses.

“Palm Trees and Power Lines” illustrates a filmmaker who reels us in, her tone becoming more and more unsettling.  Dack offers us a third act montage that acts as a relief, a return to normalcy, only to snatch it away, that hook lodged more firmly than we’d imagined.

Robin's Review: B

Momentum releases "Palm Trees and Power Lines" in select theaters and on VOD/digital on 3/3/23.