Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker star in Palm Trees and Power Lines, a 2022 Sundance title that finally hits theaters.
There’s the Fox News/QAnon version of “sexual abuse” and “grooming,” and there’s this.
First-time director Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees and Power Lines, which finally hits theaters this week more than a year after its acclaimed Sundance debut, is a deeply unsettling story of a 17-year-old girl’s relationship with a 34-year-old man, which starts as a forbidden romance, and then gets darker and creepier as the movie goes on.
The film is not easy to watch, but it’s still essential.
Adapted from Dack’s earlier short, the film stars Lily McInerny as Lila, a 17-year-old who lives in a nondescript small town with her distracted single mom (’90s It Girl Gretchen Mol). It’s late summer, and Lila appears supremely bored, hanging around at diners and at bonfires with a rotating cast of similarly aged friends and scummy teenage boys, looking at hooking up with her in the backs of cars.
Soon she meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a charming man twice her age, and they soon fall into an affair. Which, since she’s 17, can’t legally even be called an “affair.”
It starts loving and exciting, but as it goes on, red flags start amassing, leading up to one particular scene that’s more horrifying than you can possibly imagine.
Both lead performances are outstanding. McInerny, who is mostly a newcomer, isn’t really 17 — she’s in her early 20s, I believe — but she’s believable as a younger character. Tucker has been acting since the late ’90s and is one of those generic handsome actors; he’s been in numerous movies and TV shows I’ve seen without making much of an impression. But he’s very good here as a guy who’s believable both as charming and as menacing.
Besides that, what’s most impressive about Palm Trees and Power Lines is the mistakes it avoids. It never feels like a message movie or a “social problem” film. There aren’t any scenes in which one character explains the subtext to another. And the ending is both uncomfortable and audacious. There were a couple of potential places it could have gone, which would have been a copout, but luckily it does neither.
Even so, Palm Trees and Power Lines is valuable as an example of what grooming actually is- an adult man slowly seducing an underaged girl, isolating her from family, and other nefarious things. Grooming is not, despite what Fox News may have told you, a gay person being hired as a teacher, or gender-affirming care for trans teenagers, or a conspiracy of Hollywood figures and politicians stealing kids and taking them to the basement of a pizza place.
Palm Trees and Power Lines reminded me a lot of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, from 2020, also about a small-town teenage girl who found a new and heartbreaking way to approach a certain social issue. It also recalls 2021’s Red Rocket, another movie about an older man grooming a younger girl that was sadly misunderstood by way too many people.
Well-received at Sundance in 2022, where Dack won an award for Best Directing, Editing, and Screenwriting in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, Palm Trees and Power Lines was nominated for several Film Independent Spirit Awards, so I guess it’s technically a 2022 release, despite arriving in theaters and on VOD in March of 2023. In a just world, it would get a much more prominent release than it’s getting, but at any rate, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.