Director: Jamie Dack
Screenwriters: Jamie Dack and Audrey Findlay
Starring: Lily McInerny, Jonathan Tucker, and Gretchen Mol
Cinematographer: Chananun Chotrungroj
Sundance Synopsis: Increasingly dissociated from lazy, drunken hangouts and perfunctory hookups with her immature peers, bored, aimless 17-year-old Lea is intrigued by older-man Tom after he rescues her following a reluctant dine-and-dash at a local diner. Initially wary (he’s twice her age!), Lea finds that Tom’s focused attention fills a deep, unspoken need, and Lea’s investment in their relationship quickly supplants her already tenuous ties to her distracted single mom and loose-knit friend group. But Tom’s initial patience and willingness to let Lea take the lead gradually gives way to a dynamic in which his awareness of the power he holds is distressingly clear.
The biggest questions I have after watching Jamie Dack’s directorial debut are “why did this need to be made?” and “what are you trying to say about the abuse of emotional teenagers that we as a society don’t already know?”
According to writer/director Jamie Dack, her film “deals with adolescent vulnerability and how that can be exploited. It explores the feelings of loneliness and insecurity that often lead young women and girls into unhealthy or inappropriate relationships.”
I would only go as far as agreeing with the fact that the film scratches the surface of these concepts. Palm Trees and Power Lines does an excellent job at showcasing how a young girl, despite feeling like she’s more mature than her peers and has developed past the need to partake in such childish behavior, is in over her head with her emotions and who she entrusts them with. But as far as criticizing the way in which the outside world condemns thee inappropriate relationship that evolves within this film, the script and direction is severely lacking.
Early on, the film tries really hard to go for the “young boys want just one thing, but older men can offer you more” narrative that is highly infelicitous and a dangerous message to convey. The groomer is her white savior, after all! What’s worse is there’s not even a commentary on how creeps and pedophiles can smooth talk their way towards entrapment and luring young girls or boys into relationships. Instead, it’s presented as “ill-advised and impetuous” (Sundance’s words, not mine), which is a downright sickening oversimplification. There’s actually no criticism of grooming in this feature at all. Lines are beyond crossed, emotional bonds are established between the leads, and there’s no intelligently timed and intentional callout before the buildup to the shocking truth of Lea and Tom’s relationship. It’s despicable, and that’s putting it lightly.
I had to tell myself half way through Dack’s highly tasteless feature that it couldn’t get any worse, but it did. Instead of actually critiquing pedophilia, Palm Trees & Power Lines digs deep on romanticizing the “relationship” between this couple. It even doubles down on the romanticism and faux critique by using 34-year-old Tom (played by Jonathan Tucker) as the solution to all of 17-year-old Lea’s problems. Using controlling phrases like “you’re more mature than your friends” and “you should hang out with people more your level” isn’t enough of a callout and disquisition on the inappropriateness and gaslighting, especially when they’re paired with romantic and moving music in the background. It’s just not. Any hint of commentary or critique on grooming came from a conversation among a group of high schoolers, who just made a mockery of the situation, masking and burying their concern in jokes. I’ll let the readers decide if that’s sufficient…
Look… I get it, Jamie Dack. Teenagers are dumb, and they can sometimes walk right into situations that- according to your film- are completely avoidable. But when you end a film about the romanticization of adult relationships from a teenager’s perspective with that teenager not learning a single lesson, that’s when filmmaking becomes dangerous. Not only that, Lea’s character begins to crawl right back to the very situation without a single reflection on the small noises that wake her up at night or the sudden need to be around her mother all the time out of fear of being alone. These physical cues should have and could have been enough to make a different film. But they weren’t. And for that, Palm Trees and Power Lines is one of the most disappointing and despicable films I’ve ever seen at the Sundance Film Festival. Great performances, though, I guess…