Palm Trees and Power Lines Review: The Gripping Drama of a Teenager Drawn Into an Affair of Darkness
A good filmmaker doesn’t just stage a scene. He or she creates a space (temporal, emotional, psychological, suspenseful). When that happens, we’re no longer just watching the characters — we’re drawn right into that space, until we’re almost floating in it, in sync with the characters’ identities and interactions, their minds and heartbeats. That’s the kind of meditative absorption that Jamie Dack, the director and co-writer of “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” creates.
The story she’s telling emerges from the chaos of today’s glumly hedonistic and squalid tech-addict youth culture. Lea (Lily McInerny), who’s 17, is smart and shy (because she’s honest about her own inwardness), a girl who’s not trying to act more knowing than she is. Finishing off the summer in her desultory Southwestern city, she’s listless and mildly depressed, lurching through the weeks in a daze of sunbathing, makeup tutorials, and hanging out with her friends — though you almost want to put that word in quotation marks, since they’re mostly a pack of dissolute teen scoundrels who walk around guzzling 40s of Colt 45, staring at their phones, and hooking up the back seat. The problem what all that is that it’s all they do. Their life is a cycle of one fix after the next, and it dooms them, mostly, to boredom.
Lea lives with her real-estate-agent mother (Gretchen Mol), her father having abandoned them long ago, and she’s got a bestie, Katie (Auden Thornton), who’s too much of a back-biting mean girl to be totally trusted. All in all, nothing too remarkable there. But when Lea and her morose wolf pack are finishing up their snack at a diner, and the dudes lead them in skipping out on the bill, something in Lea snaps. She knows it’s not right; the “harmless” do-what-you-want stupor has now slopped over into destructive selfishness. It’s at that moment that Tom (Jonathan Tucker), handsome, well-muscled, and 34 years old, spies Lea in the parking lot and zeroes in on her like a hawk.
He fends off a cook who’s trying to berate Lea into paying the bill. Then, when she’s strolling home on a dark residential street, he catches up with her in his pickup truck, slowing it down to the speed of her walk. He flirts with expert cunning, but there’s nothing playful about this sequence. From the get-go, Tom has the vibe of a creep and a predator. We can see it, and in a weird way Lea can see it. Yet she doesn’t care. His come-on promises something: excitement, a break from the boredom, maybe a chance to be adored. So after a few minutes of resistance, Lea give in to his invitation for a ride home and climbs into the passenger seat.
Tom works his charm just like the scurrilous porn-world hero of “Red Rocket” does. There, however, the mood of danger was laced with a powder blast of subversive comedy, and it took a while to parse the real agenda. “Palm Trees and Power Lines” takes its time as well, but Tom is so theatrically smooth and low-key, so premeditated in what he says, that we’re cued to wonder at every turn what sinister thing he’s up to.
If he were just a local repair-shop owner, as he claims to be, and wanted to sleep with a high-school girl, that would certainly be skeevy — and criminal — enough. But “Palm Trees and Power Lines” isn’t the story of a “forbidden affair.” It’s the story of what looks, to Lea, like a forbidden affair (she does all she can to keep it a complete secret), as the audience parses the “relationship” to see what’s really happening.
And this is where Jamie Dack reveals her trancelike skill as a filmmaker. She frames these two so that we slide back and forth, caught in a gaze that lands somewhere between voyeurism and intimacy. Jonathan Tucker is an actor who’s been around, and you feel like you know his face: the grin with its slight overbite, the eyes that stare with bird-like fierceness. His performance is multi-layered. We see the courtliness he lays out like a warm blanket, the iciness of his manner just beneath that, and then, as bits of Tom’s insistence begin to trickle in, we start to see what he’s steering toward. But Lea, like an awkward fawn, falls for all of it. And Dack, as a filmmaker, colors in the space that connects this soft-pedaled hulk and his tentative, beaming prey. We’re in the middle of that space, and it holds us in an ominous thrall.
I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens in “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” but the first real clue to Tom’s agenda arrives when, having taken his time with “seduction,” he invites Lea over to his place, and his place turns out to be…a motel room. He explains that he’s between leases (right). At one point, when they’re in that room, there’s a knock on the door, which he says is a “friend,” but we can hear the tension in the woman’s voice outside.
But just because we’re putting two and two together doesn’t mean we’re ready for the devastating sequence that Dack stages with a masterly kind of slow-motion horror. At this point, Lily McInerny’s acting begins to connect with us on a nearly psychic level. The sequence is about coercion, it’s about desperation, it’s about a dark manipulation of the spirit, it’s about a culture that has turned sexuality into an alienated spectator sport — and, more than anything, it’s about fear. You can almost touch the fear. “Palm Trees and Power Lines” could seriously use a better title; this one is way too nondescript for the subject matter. And I have to say, with regret, that I didn’t totally buy the film’s carefully crafted shocker of an ending. Not in my gut I didn’t. I found it to be at once powerful in a momentary way and, on another moment’s reflection, to be a kind of thesis ending: the illustration of a brand of Stockholm Syndrome that certainly exists, but maybe not in the case of this girl, after what she has just been through. Even so, “Palm Trees and Power Lines” finds a truth, one it wrenches out of an experience.
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