Lea (Lily McInerney) never wanted to dine and dash, but when you’re 17 years old and don’t have the money to pay the bills of the friends who’ve already bolted, it doesn’t seem you have much of a choice. Unfortunately, she isn’t as quick as they were, and is caught by an aggrieved diner employee. He grabs Lea, they tussle, he slaps her.
All of a sudden, Tom (Jonathan Tucker) is right there beside her, telling the employee what he thinks of a grown man slapping a teenage girl, and giving Lea a crucial chance to get away. He finds her walking home a little later, checks she’s okay and offers a lift. They get to chatting, and swap numbers. A frisson develops, which soon morphs into a romance.
Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem—it’s just that Tom is literally twice Lea’s age. An adult. And as their relationship progresses, and he starts systematically cutting her off from her friends and her mom (Gretchen Mol), it becomes more and more clear that he’s far from the hero he first appeared.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is the feature debut of Jamie Dack, adapted from her 2018 short of the same name. Although Dack takes her movie to some dark places, she takes it there slowly. Carefully. Despite the delicate nature of the subject matter, nothing in her filmmaking could fairly be described as exploitative. She sidesteps potential pitfalls of romanticization by including no score, and setting her story in a suburb that may be on the California coast, but is still devoid of warmth or color. She wants us to see the relationship between Tom and Lea for what it is, without any stylistic flourishes, or even prettified images, clouding the clarity of our vision.
Dack’s chief directorial asset is the ability to always show the feelings and motivations of both of her leads at the same time; it’s like we’re watching her film in an emotional split-screen. Whereas Lea thinks Tom likes her because she’s more mature and interesting than her friends, we see that it’s actually because she’s the sort of lonely that makes her an easy target for a charming predator. Though she thinks he’s going slow with her because he’s a gentleman, we know it’s because he’s wary of scaring her off before he’s fully gotten her under his spell. She sees his possessiveness as jealousy; we know it’s because he needs her isolated so she’s got no-one else to run to.
As much as we might be watching Palm Trees and Power Lines screaming at Lea to get far away from Tom while she still can, it’s clear why she doesn’t. She’s not stupid—Dack never suggests she is—but she’s young and she’s vulnerable, and Tom is very good at what he does; from the studiedly careful way we watch him reel Lea in, it’s clear even before the movie confirms it that she’s not the first he’s lured in to his insidious trap. Charm can be a dangerous thing, especially when it’s directed at a lonely, bored girl on summer vacation.
That charm is exquisitely deployed by Tucker, whose portrayal of the predatory Tom is as thoughtful and meticulous as the film that surrounds it. It’s such a smart performance in that, as befitting the emotional split-screen, it always has to work on two layers at once: The one we see, and the one Lea does. Subtly, Tucker lets us observe Tom deciding his strategy on a moment-by-moment basis; pulling back when Lea looks on the verge of getting uncomfortable, and sliding forward when he’s intuited that she’s ready to move things up a level.
McInerny’s Lea, on the other hand, is pure feeling. While Dack has created a milieu drained of all possible romanticism, Lea still spends the early days of her relationship with Tom palpably aglow with excitement. The way McInerney conveys the slow dimming of that glow during the movie’s most difficult-to-watch scene, as she starts to comprehend that Tom has—to put it mildly—betrayed her, is just devastating.
Lea is the emotional heart of Palm Trees and Power Lines, but that doesn’t mean she wears that heart on her sleeve all the time. There remains an enigmatic side to her, which is exacerbated by the Tom-engineered lack of confidantes; the further the film progresses, the less we actually hear Lea elucidate her thoughts aloud. That leaves space for a finale that arrives with the surprising force of a twist ending, but—upon a little reflection—feels both entirely true and entirely earned. The insidiousness of what she’s been through refuses to allow for neat narrative rules, and the movie is all the better for it.
Although it would be a valuable educational tool, to say Jamie Dack’s film ought to be shown in schools implies too dryly didactic an experience; that it’s little more than a PSA about the threat of grooming, meant to be heeded, but not felt. While Palm Trees and Power Lines certainly functions as a cautionary tale, it derives the intensity of its power from the uncomfortable degree to which we’re compelled to empathize with Lea as she makes a string of increasingly perilous decisions. As much as we might like to tell ourselves otherwise, no-one is completely immune from the lure of a dangerously charismatic stranger entering their lives at just the right moment.
Director: Jamie Dack
Writer: Jamie Dack, Audrey Findlay
Starring: Lily McInerney, Jonathan Tucker, Gretchen Mol
Release Date: October 5, 2022 (London Film Festival)
Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.