Palm Trees and Power Lines
Neon Heart Productions, 2023
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Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
As Millennials and Gen Z’ers become increasingly open about their dating experiences, people of all ages collectively re-examine their teenage romances. The openness has helped people smile for the fun times they remember. For others, it has helped them both heal from abuse and recognize problematic behavior in retrospect, specifically with relationships involving large age gaps. While films and documentaries dive into the behavior of groomers, we generally do not get the perspective of the young, impressionable party being manipulated. In this way, recent indie and Sundance darling Palm Trees and Power Lines can provide a deep understanding from a different vantage point.
Palm Trees and Power Lines illustrates how groomers operate by zeroing in on Lea (Lily McInerny, Tell Me Lies), a 17-year-old on summer break struggling to find her support system. An only child with an absentee father, she does not have an emotional connection at home, as her mother Sandra (Gretchen Mol, Manchester by the Sea) cycles through boyfriends that Lea does not care for and who do not show the slightest interest in being a husband or dad. While she has a group of friends, she feels a disconnect as they gossip and share in sex-obsessed discussions. One evening, her friends dine and dash, leaving her to fend for herself in a physical altercation with the dishwasher. Fellow patron Tom (Jonathan Tucker, Hostage), who is twice her age, comes to her defense, then gives her a ride home. After giving her his phone number, Tom stays in touch with her and gradually seduces her. Feeling an emotional connection for the first time, Lea looks past the inappropriate age difference. Tom becomes more possessive and eventually reveals his even darker intentions.
Though not the first film about predatory behavior, Palm Trees and Power Lines effectively humanizes the character being preyed upon. Many stories surrounding the grooming of teenagers focus on the older perpetrator and their repulsive tactics. The film certainly puts those tactics on display, as Tom not only draws Lea away from her friends but tells her he does not want her being involved with anyone else. However, director Jamie Dack, who won Best Director at The Sundance Film Festival, shows not only how Lea is not on the same wavelength as her friends, but also how her detachment from friends and family allows for Tom to pull the wool over her eyes for so long.
The scene that best illustrates Tom’s ability to play mind games with Lea is when they eat lunch at a diner. The waitress, recognizing Tom, waits until he leaves the table to encourage Lea to desert him. Lea ignores the waitress’s prompts and mentions her warning to Tom as they leave the restaurant. When Tom goes back in to confront the waitress, the camera stays outside with Lea. We never hear the exchange, and neither does she. This tidbit allows Tom to manipulate the narrative, and Lea, however he wants. Instead of feeling uneasy about Tom, Lea feels that he is protecting her.
Dack uses the camera to illustrate Lea’s mindset in several other scenes as well. When Lea is with her friends or her mother, she remains centered in the shot while they are often completely out of frame or on the periphery. As she sits with her friends, they often banter back and forth off frame or stare at their phones, while the camera rests on Lea sitting in uncomfortable silence. These shots contrast sharply with the scenes where she accompanies Tom. Both are centered in the frame, making solid eye contact and speaking directly to one another. The shot composition, along with Tom’s manipulation, convey how one can trust a stranger when they make you feel seen in ways that your loved ones do not.
The third act of Palm Trees and Power Lines is sure to make stomachs turn, if the first two acts did not already do so. A similar movie in tone and message is the 2010 David Schwimmer-directed indie, Trust. Though that film dealt more with online predation and the fallout from such encounters, it depicted the same manipulation tactics that Tom uses in building false trust through isolation. These disturbing strategies are employed not only by individual predators but also cults and hate groups. Hopefully, the telling of stories like Palm Trees and Power Lines can help those being preyed upon and their well-intentioned loved ones to recognize warning signs.