Well-groomed – Film Review: Palm Trees and Power Lines ★★★1/2

Navigating the emotions of a person who either lacks self-awareness or the tools to articulate their experiences has often proved a captivating exploration in cinematic storytelling. I think of such films as far back as 1973’s Badlands to the more recent Never Rarely Sometimes Always from 2020 as examples of such tellings in which we got inside the heads of the protagonists and saw things strictly from their point of view. In these cases, our main characters were teenagers forced to grow up quickly and figure out how to walk through life and understand how challenging that can be for women. Enter Palm Trees and Power Lines, the soul-crushing debut feature from director Jamie Dack, who clearly swims in the same waters as her predecessors and delivers a quiet gut punch of a film.

Lily McInerny in Palm Trees And Power Lines. Courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Lea (Lily McInerny in a fantastic film debut) lives with her single mom Sandra (Gretchen Mol), and seems bored and restless, as any 17-year-old would in a nondescript small town. She treats Sandra with little interest, resenting the deadbeat men she occasionally has over to the house. She also spends time with her terrible friends, who get stoned, have bad sex, and hang out at a local diner. It’s here where Lea catches the eye of Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who gives her a telling wink as he walks out. Later, Tom rolls his pickup truck next to Lea as she walks home, casually flirting as he drives alongside her, charming her enough to climb inside. Clearly “stranger danger” rules don’t apply when faced with a hot guy literally twice your age.

Thus begins their burgeoning romance, with Tom impressing her with talk of running his own repair business and offering her attention she doesn’t get from the awful boys in her posse. We as an audience can see right through Tom’s act and identify him as a pedophile, a groomer, or a sexual predator at the very least. But we’re inside Lea’s head and she sees something different and exciting in him. It’s like Spacek in Badlands, when she idealizes her relationship with a psychotic. In her private world, she explained in voiceover, she “spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth where nobody could read them”. Dack’s film, which she co-wrote with Audrey Findlay, feels like the whole story is written in such a private place as well.

Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker in Palm Trees And Power Lines. Courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

When Lea’s friends catch wind of her new relationship, their chief concern is that Tom is old, overlooking the obvious potential dangers at hand. Lea feels deliberately written as somewhat of a blank slate despite her aspirations to have a career in singing. She’s a bit of a weeping willow, going wherever the wind takes her, and that seems to be the filmmakers’ point. A life in desolation, where the title of the film describes your entire world, cannot amply prepare you for the world of grown-ups. The title also has a clever double meaning, describing the power dynamics between our main characters.

Tucker, who has impressed me ever since The Deep End in 2001, gives a wonderfully subtle and sexy performance, never once tipping his hand as to Tom’s true intentions, but instead laying on considerable charm. Tom knows exactly how to draw Lea into his world, bit by bit isolating her from everyone else, and it’s horrific yet simultaneously mesmerizing to witness. McInerny, especially in a harrowing third act sequence, does a great job getting us to empathize with Lea, a young woman who has learned not to offend physically imposing men, but hasn’t figured out those crucial next steps. Mol does a fine job but is given very little to do except be the understandably frustrated mom.

Lily McInerny in Palm Trees And Power Lines. Courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

A special mention must be made of cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, who transcends the very Sundance-y qualities of this slow-burn, intimate indie, to deliver some gorgeous compositions. The characters, as framed against the bleak landscapes, often feel tiny or not as important as the big bad world out there. This methodical yet languorous film may not be for everyone, but it displays a refreshingly brutal honesty, right up to that devastating final moment. Admittedly rushed and not entirely earned, the choice made here may cause you to yell at the screen. Still, what it has to say about the limited options some may have rings hauntingly true.

By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic

Palm Trees And Power Lines opens theatrically in limited release Friday, March 3rd and is also available on demand.

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