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Depiction is not endorsement, but it’s not a point of view either. That’s the struggle for writer/director Jamie Dack in “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” a film that methodically dramatizes, step by step, the method by which predators groom vulnerable young women and coerce them into sex work. These events unfold with a sense of sickening inevitability, and when the scenes we all know are coming finally come, they’re as icky and hard to watch as they should be. But beyond simple documentation, the movie’s intentions are fuzzy.
In the opening scenes of this appropriately downbeat indie, we watch 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) fighting with her mom Sandra (Gretchen Mol), watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, and hanging around with a group of kids that Lea doesn’t like all that much, but they have beer and pot and that’s good enough for her. It’s all typical teenage stuff, just like Lea’s desire to be seen as older and more mature than she actually is. Lea doesn’t feel welcome at home on the nights when one of her mom’s many boyfriends is staying over, and she gets bored guzzling Colt 45 and scrolling through Instagram with her friends. So she spends a lot of time wandering the generic SoCal suburb that gives the film its title, waiting for someone to tell her who she is.
That makes her a perfect target for Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a 34-year-old man who “innocently” offers Lea a ride home after a disastrous dine-and-dash incident at a late-night diner. Tom drives a nice truck and always has money in his pocket; he tells Lea that he “owns a small business” and leaves it at that. Tucker’s performance is creepy from the jump: He stares unblinkingly at McInerny when she’s talking, alternates between insulting and flattering her, and always positions his body so he’s hovering over her much smaller frame.
Things get worse midway through after Lea and Tom have had sex for the first time. He’s been steadily escalating his rhetoric, telling her that “you’re never going to leave me” and that “nobody’s ever going to love you like I love you.” They’re hanging out in the motel room where Tom lives when there’s a loud, panicky banging on the door. Tom steps out to handle some business and tells Lea that the woman outside is a “friend” who needed help “with a guy she’s seeing.” “Like a boyfriend?” Lea asks. Sure, close enough.
Savvy viewers will immediately pick up on the nature of Tom’s “work,” and the horror of this film comes from watching Lea ignore, rationalize, or just plain fail to see the many red flags Tom throws in her path. It’s clear what Tom is up to, but what Lea thinks is less obvious. “Palm Trees and Power Lines” shows promise in this area in its early scenes, showing the sexually charged atmosphere that surrounds Lea and demonstrating the ways that her mom taught her to put men before everything else. Aside from this one area of her life, however, her personality remains elusive.
Lea’s body language is passive, with drooping shoulders and downcast eyes. She has no hobbies besides a casual interest in music, and she doesn’t know what she wants to do after she finishes high school. We do know that she’s smart and cynical enough that she doesn’t blindly obey every adult in her life. But the overall lack of definition in her character means that, as she goes deeper down the rabbit hole of grooming and sexual abuse, Lea becomes defined solely by her victimhood.
Dack relies on the performances to connect the character and audience, framing the more shocking scenes to protect her young actress (this is McInerny’s first feature film) and lingering on McInerny’s face in long, unbroken close-ups. The fleeting furrow in McInerny’s brow as she realizes what Tom actually wants from her, and her eyes welling up with tears as she scans the room looking for a way out, are heartbreaking. These shots recall a scene in Audrey Diwan’s film “Happening,” where the camera remains static as its main character tries not to scream during a painful at-home abortion.
The protagonist in “Happening” is a more fully realized person, however, which makes it easier to connect with her at that moment. Indeed, 17-year-olds often have no idea what they’re into or who they want to be in real life. But the procedural emphasis on what happens to Lea in “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” and not what she thinks or feels about it, means that in the end, what sticks is the trauma, and not the person experiencing it.
Now playing in theaters and available on VOD.
Lily McInerny as Lea
Gretchen Mol as Sandra
Jonathan Tucker as Tom
Auden Thornton as Katie
Armani Jackson as Patrick
Kenny Johnston as Jimmy
Michael Petrone as Mike
John Minch as Eric
Quinn Frankel as Amber