‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’ – Review

Palm Trees and Power Lines is one of the most disturbing films, not just for its subject matter but for how normal the horrors on display in the film feel. Anchored by powerful performances from Lily McInern and Jonathan Tucker, it may be easy to guess what is coming, but the gut punch is still extremely effective.

**A trigger warning for sexual assault and grooming**
**Contains spoilers for the film Palm Trees and Power Lines**

Many yearn for their last summer of freedom before starting their senior year of high school: no heavy responsibilities, no burdens of paying bills, and time to be bored. Palm Trees and Power Lines uses the summer break for its setting as we follow seventeen-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) whose boredom has taken over her life. Her mother (Gretchen Mol) is on edge with Lea doing nothing at home, but she doesn’t care enough about her daughter to take an interest in anything she does get into. Lea’s friends are immature, only concerned with themselves, and don’t seem to be too interested in Lea. As Lea finds herself feeling ostracized from her life, she meets an older man named Tom (Jonathan Tucker) by chance. 

After a night out including an unpleasurable hookup in a car and drinking beer in an empty field, Lea’s friends decide to ditch the bill after a bite at a diner. Lea begrudgingly does so, but not without being detained by a cook from the diner. Out of nowhere, Tom, who had made eyes at Lea inside, intervenes and saves the day. As you see the older man appear out of seemingly nowhere, you ask yourself, “Was he waiting there the entire time?” It’s a feeling writer/director Jamie Dack skillfully places in the audience’s mind with Tom right away. We’ve all been taught that if something feels off, it usually is, and Dack does such a powerful job of using this to deliver such an effective film. When they go to exchange numbers – to protect her in the future of course – Tom confirms that he’s 34 years old. Lea tells him her actual age of 17 and he continues to put his number in her phone while laughing to himself. 

Throughout Palm Trees and Power Lines, Lea is seen repeatedly apologizing for being in the way, whether it be when a guy she’s hooking up with complains that she hasn’t given him enough room for him to relax in the car or when her mother complains she’s ‘being annoying’ in their house by not doing anything useful. Lea is shown as desperate for connection, for anything to mean something more. The film uses its careful, delicate pacing to show why it is so easy for Lea to find solace in a ‘relationship’ with Tom. McInerny portrays Lea with sarcastic one-offs, sighs, and eye rolls showing her disinterest in her friends who feel more immature than her but lowers Lea’s guard with brief glimpses of her true self breaking through her tough exterior when the moment feels right to Lea. 

The more time Lea spends with Tom, the more she opens up, and the film both skillfully and disturbingly ties the teen’s confidence to the 34-year-old man’s influence over her. Tom starts to chip away Lea’s slight defense mechanisms just in conversation; it starts small by him saying she’s too mature for her friends (appealing to her maturity for her age…) and then gets into the heavy by saying “some people shouldn’t have kids” in regard to her mother. Slowly, Tom isolates Lea from her life she was already longing to get out of. As the film goes on, you see Lea lying to her mother that she’s with her friends, while blows them off to only hang around Tom. He frames their conversations as an open dialogue between them – what he wants and what Lea wants – but he’s phrased it in a way to get exactly what he wants out of their ‘relationship.’ Tucker plays Tom so perfectly as you can always sense there is something more sinister below the surface, but he always come across so authentic in his interactions with Lea. While audiences know what he’s doing is predatory behavior, it’s easy to see why Lea lets her guard down and lets him in despite all the red flags she sees. 

Palm Trees and Power Lines is an effective, disturbing look at systematic grooming and predatory behavior that teens face. While many, me included, have been in ‘relationships’ as teens and not seen the predatory behavior on the other side of someone, the film explains the side of the victim in such an easy-to-understand manner. When watching the film, there’s never a thought of ‘why is she not seeing this as worrisome’; while you are aware of the power dynamics that Tom holds in the relationship, you see that Lea believes that she holds all the cards.

McInerny’s performance is stunning; she plays the role of Lea like you would see in any other coming-of-age film whose darkest moments would be about peer pressure and not what is bubbling under the surface of this disturbing film. The cinematography by Chananun Chatrungroj is incredible as the film always never feels exploitative and makes use of empty space to pair back to how Lea is feeling and transport audiences back to their last summer vacation. Tucker is perfectly utilized as a familiar face to most, but it provides a necessary connection for audiences to immediately know there’s something off with him. 

Dack adapted Palm Trees and Power Lines from her 2018 short of the same title with her co-screenwriter, Audrey Findlay. In the feature film, they’ve written a deeply, disturbing yet cautionary tale about grooming and, yes, trafficking. The last 30 minutes of the film make quite a departure from the short film, yet it feels necessary given the likelihood of the events depicted. While a film about grooming and trafficking of young girls sounds grim, and it is, Palm Trees and Power Lines is a necessary watch. While the film may not be for everyone, it’s entirely effective and empathic towards the subject matter without shying away from the ugliness.

As someone who needed to see something like this when she was younger, I ache that the need for this is still necessary but hope it will be able to help those who need out of a situation before it’s too late. 

Grade: A-

Oscars Prospects:
Likely: None
Should be Considered: None

Where to Watch: VOD; In Select Theaters

Kenzie Vanunu
she/her @kenzvanunu
Lives in LA with her husband, daughter and dog. Misses Arclight, loves iced vanilla coffees.
Favorite Director: Darren Aronofsky
Sign: Capricorn

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