Bored out of her mind, 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) is doing what a normal teenager has to do to fill in the time before her summer vacation comes to an end. She wakes up late in the day, tans by the pool, grabs doughnuts with her friends, and messes around with boys in the back seat of car, without a care in the world. Lea’s mother (Gretchen Mol) can’t stand that she is home all the time, counting the minutes she is back in school and out of her hair. She doesn’t care if her daughter goes out, just as long as she comes home in one piece.
Flash to a night where Lea and her friends are dining at a local restaurant and decide to dine and dash, not paying for their food. But Lea is caught by a kitchen worker and being forced back in to pay her tab. Out of nowhere comes a mysterious man, who we come to know later as Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), and confronts the employee while Lea gets away. As she is walking home, Tommy can catch up with her and offer her a ride home. She is hesitant at first, since this man is a complete stranger, but ultimately gets in the car.
As he is talking to her, he’s charming her, getting to know as much as he can without stepping over the line. When he gets her to her front door, he asks for her number. When she asks him for his age, he replies 34-years old, double the age she is. But she is not taken aback by this omission, instead she is intrigued, as this is one of the first people all summer to show her any type of interest or kindness. So, she writes her number down, and over the course of the next couple of days, they start to get to know one another.
Tommy is a wonderer, living in a small, rundown hotel room, not looking to be tied down to one specific spot. In doing so, he is not beholden to anyone but himself. And like a moth to a flame, this sense of freedom draws Lea closer and closer to him, to the point in which they become romantically involved, even going as far to call him her boyfriend. While able to keep this a secret from her mother and friends, the closer she gets to Tommy, the more she falls under his spell, and thus he’s groomed her right around his finger, leading to horrific consequences for the young teenager.
Based on her 2018 narrative short of the same name, Palm Trees and Power Lines writer and director Jamie Dack has made a terrifying depiction of the age gap issues that have been firing up online over the last couple of months. Instead of making this a dark satire like 2021’s Red Rocket, she makes it known early on that this is not a laughing matter. To show the process of how easy it is for young girls like Lea to get tricked into believing they are in a loving, tender relationship, only to have the rug pulled out from under them to prove she was nothing but a conquest for Tommy is haunting and tragic. The film is at its best when it is focused on this drama, and primarily on McInerny’s rare, vulnerable performance, as well on the sinister work being done by Tucker.
Unfortunately, to get to these stellar moments, there is a lot of scenes that just don’t flow with what Palm Trees and Power Lines is trying to highlight. None of the performances or scenes with her friends stick out, other than to just get us to the next time she sees Tommy. We also never get a moment where she does question why she hangs out with these people her own age, and why Lea is draw to someone like Tommy, and why she keeps going back to him despite the uneasy feeling he presents to her when they get into any kind of confrontation. Then there is Mol, a talented actress, who is mostly playing a one note, against the grain mother role where she is at constant odds with her daughter for much of their time on screen together, only for them to come to respect one another in the end. It’s a shtick we have seen dozens of times, and thus takes us out of the emotional, important heartbeat of the story, which is this dangerous partnership between Lea and Tommy.
Knowing this was a short makes perfect sense after seeing it, considering this massive, crucial topic of grooming, sexual exploitation, and what it does on an impressionable mind is something a writer can really sink their teeth into and broaden the scope further. It’s thematically too rich to pass up. Sadly, given the lack of narrative cohesion, Dack can’t justify a full-length version of this story.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute