Sundance Review: Palm Trees and Power Lines
Teenage restlessness has been the topic of coming-of-age stories since 1967’s The Graduate, but rarely has any movie cast such an unforgiving light on the exploitation of that ennui as Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees and Power Lines. An adaptation from Dack’s short film of the same name, Palm Trees refuses to hold the viewer’s hand through its sticky story of a 30-something man who slowly seduces and then conscripts a 17-year-old young woman.
The story hinges on Lily McInerny’s subtle yet searing performance as Lea – daughter of a single mom adrift in the meandering days of a high school summer. Dack’s camera floats along with Lea’s boredom, moving from the sun-dappled exteriors to the drab home through which Lea’s mother (Gretchen Mol) parades a series of men. The plot will draw comparisons to last year’s Red Rocket, but it’s the setting the most effectively captures the same spirit: a barren, beautiful wasteland. The film’s title says it all – and as it plods toward its upsetting final act, Lea reaches further toward the electricity of the power lines, seeking excitement only to be drawn into something terrifically painful.
Palm Trees also matches the Sundance film Happening, both literal eye-opening efforts to force viewers to watch as the unthinkable happens – exactly for the purpose of making us realize that this isn’t unthinkable. To that effect, Dack’s camera refuses to leave Lea’s side as her pimp boyfriend emotionally manipulates her and forces her into sex work. This extended sequence at a nondescript hotel is the ugliest, most harshly lit scene of the film, and it’s the one that may stick with you the longest. Or, perhaps, it’s the slyly heartrending closing that comes shortly thereafter. Dack doesn’t seem to think there’s much hope to be found.
Palm Trees stumbles with overly repetitive visual motifs and a second act that gets stuck in the mud a few times. It also has difficulty whenever it moves away from the central relationship, as small moments between Lea and her friends, or Lea and her mother, don’t ring with much authenticity. Though this does wonders for bringing the audience right into Lea’s alienation, it also creates extended passages that feel stilted and crafted just to fill the time. Its powerful final forty minutes ultimately make it worth watching, but Palms Trees and Power Lines does little to help viewers make it that far.