Don’t murder me, okay?
It starts with a quick glance and a wink. Tom (Jonathan Tucker) sees that it’s a teenager looking his way when he does it. He knows he might have even made seventeen-year-old Lea’s (Lily McInerny) day by acknowledging her lusting over him with reciprocated approval. What happens next, however, is pure luck. Yes, he was surely waiting outside the diner in his truck to stalk her on the off chance she became isolated from her friends, but an opportunity to save the day couldn’t have happened more perfectly. The boys dined-and-ditched, leaving Lea and BFF Amber (Quinn Frankel) to fend for themselves when the line cook accosts them. In swoops Tom to free them and earn his introduction with an “Are you okay?” Suddenly there’s no turning back.
Palm Trees and Power Lines isn’t his story, though. Director Jamie Dack and co-writer Audrey Findlay are quick to explain that they wanted to make certain this latest tale of grooming was firmly positioned on the side of the victim. That choice alone doesn’t make it a must-see considering last year saw Les Nôtres dealing with similar issues from a similar vantage, but it does supply a welcome counterbalance to something like Red Rocket and its more humorous variation courtesy of a lead character you love to hate. Dack is stripping away that artifice of fun to mine the emotional and psychological hold something like love (and the promise of it) possesses. Lea and Tom embark on a romance, its intrinsic power structure masked by devotion.
We know what’s happening. Either from looking into the film before watching or the obvious signs any outsider can notice. Even Lea’s friends understand what’s transpiring despite their attempt to vocalize it possessing a hefty sense of entitlement, superiority, and jealousy. No thirty-four-year-old man who picks up a teenager is innocent due to the sheer fact that his willingness to do so—and continued pursuit despite confirming her age—means he’s always been in it for the dynamic born from her presumed naivete. Sadly, Amber and company decide to laugh and mock him as a “geriatric” rather than warn her of the potential danger. They ultimately add fuel to the alienation fire that’s already burning inside of her, pushing Lea further into his calculatingly welcome arms.
The drama is thus built upon the question of whether Lea can figure out what’s happening in time. Dack and Findlay provide numerous red flags (even going so far as having a stranger tell her he’s bad news) to reiterate just how manipulated and cornered some young women can become when predatory men prey upon their already traumatized minds. Tom knows what he’s doing. He sees Lea as an outcast within her own group of friends. He’s aware from her attitude and actions that first night that she’s used to being abandoned. Finding out that her father left to start another family and her mother’s (Gretchen Mol) revolving door of boyfriends often take precedence over Lea’s wellbeing is icing on the cake. He can be everything she needs.
Depicting that reality is neither entertaining nor exciting. Anyone thinking the contrary should reevaluate their sense of morality (credit Red Rocket for balancing that tone by ensuring it never glorifies what’s happening). Dack can therefore push her narrative forward with methodical precision instead. She reveals how carefully timed every maneuver must be in order for Lea to be the one who initiates each point of escalation. Tom is all whispers and compliments. He flirts to the point of no return before backing off and letting her cross the line instead. And those moments forcing him to lie upon bringing her into his world unfold like second nature. He not only has done this before, but Lea has not. She has no comparison point for real love.
The result is a tough watch. The authenticity imbued by the two central performances and their journey towards a tragic inevitability inside a hotel room guarantee as much. Don’t confuse a slow pace and obvious end point with the idea that nothing happens, though. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything we see from Mol’s depression and willingness to take back the boyfriends she just ditched to the way Lea’s teen crush Jared (Timothy Taratchila) reacts when she shoots down his advances are crucial moments as far as how this young woman visualizes and experiences affection. There’s a reason Tom knows he can mold her into whatever he needs. Telling her what she wants will hide any truth because he’s steadily becoming her everything in the process.
McInerny carries the whole with an unforgettable mix of youthful innocence and heartbreaking hope. Her Lea wants this romance to be real so bad because she’s tired of believing her worth is predicated solely on duty or what she has to offer. And Tucker provides that contrast with the mesmerizing juxtaposition of a warm smile and cold stare. His Tom is almost mechanical in the patterns of his movements and speech, every action a pre-planned response to what he’s given so that his grip can dig deeper into her skin. It’s all a script. Every word. Every revelation. So don’t delude yourself into anticipating a happy ending. Their dynamic contains back doors and long cons, their weeks-long courtship planting seeds far more volatile than love. Seeds of forgiveness.
 A still from Palm Trees and Power Lines, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.