Director and co-writer Jamie Dack’s “Palm Trees and Power Lines” is the kind of movie that should worry any parent of a teenage daughter. Based on her 2018 short film, the cautionary tale of a 17-year-old named Lea (newcomer Lily McInerny) who falls for a guy twice her age named Tom (Jonathan Tucker) is filled with so many cringeworthy moments that you may start yelling at the screen; just think of it as a real-life “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
It’s just before sunset in Southern California. Lea walks in an empty field surrounded by pylons while listening to music on her smartphone. Like so many other teenagers, she’s on summer break and absolutely bored. The next day she wakes up mid-morning only to discover her single mom Sandra (Gretchen Mol) still in bed. “Are you gonna get up?” she asks, reminding her mother, “You have work,” Sandra mentions she’s going in late; Lea rolls her eyes as if she can’t wait to be home alone.
Lea’s daily routine includes sunbathing, online makeup tutorials, and hanging out with best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel). In a matter of weeks, she’ll be back in high school, and she hasn’t started her summer reading program. When Sandra, a realtor, offers to give her daughter a part-time job preparing homes to show, Lea declines. There is clearly tension between the two. We later find out Sandra is having a rough time dating and Lea isn’t happy with the deadbeat guys her mother drags home.
The teenagers in “Palm Trees” are not like the ones you see in a John Hughes film. You know, the ones that are supposed to be “unpopular”, yet they all seem to be trendy, well-liked, or enigmatic to the point of being cool. Here, Lea and her friends smoke, drink, and occasionally hook up with each other. They’re not delinquents but also not cool kids, more like outcasts with no sense of purpose.
34-year-old Tom enters the picture when he eyes Lea sitting with her friends at a restaurant. She catches him staring at her and despite his age difference, Lea seems to enjoy the attention. When Tom leaves, he tosses her a wink with all the suaveness of a player. The fact that she’s under 18 makes Tom a creep. The audience sees it, but Lea doesn’t. In fact, within ten minutes she’ll be riding in his truck.
Why would a teenage girl fall for an older man? Dack lets the viewer draw a conclusion. Is it the lack of a father figure in her life? Obviously, Lea craves stability, and she may see Tom as the person who can give that to her. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a physically fit good-looking guy who makes her feel desirable. There isn’t one false note in the film that gives the audience a voyeuristic view of both Tom’s seduction and Lea’s infatuation. It’s uncomfortable to watch.
Moving at the slow speed of a skilled predator, Tom takes his time luring in Lea. They sit on the tailgate of his truck. Lea gives him a hard time about liking sunsets and associates him with the people who post #livingmybestlife on Instagram. They share laughs and then the conversation gets deep as Lea discusses life after high school and how she’s being coerced to attend college by her mother. Tom points out “There’s a lot of different ways to live a good life, and you don’t have to go to college to do that.” He tells her he’s self-employed and works as a builder, and Lea confesses that she loves to sing. Later they hit the beach and Tom points out that his father was never around for him so he can relate to Lea’s life, she falls for it hook, line, and sinker and before you know it, they’re making out.
The red flags are never-ending. When Lea asks if they can go over to his home, Tom pulls up to a seedy motel. “It’s just temporary” he explains. “My lease was up, and I’m just camped out here until I can find a new spot.” No problem. They begin having sex. He buys her nice things. And they go away on vacation together. As the story progresses, he becomes domineering, and the big picture comes into focus.
Written by Dack and Audrey Findlay, “Palm Trees and Power Lines” feels authentic which is why it’s so disturbing, Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker deliver bold performances, the two were nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, and the ending will resonate with many as the story’s impact lingers days after viewing.
Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café and available VOD