The Sundance Film Festival is thought of a lot as a meat market of sorts, where movies exist to be bought. So, a quirky romantic comedy tends to get more attention than darker art house fare. That takes nothing away from the former, but it means the latter has to struggle more for attention. In the particular case of Palm Trees and Power Lines, it’s a film that leaves a major impact, but also will likely be barely seen. That’s a shame too, since while it’s a hard flick to watch, it’s something that will linger in your mind as much as any Sundance title this year.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is saying a lot about consent and relationships without every overtly saying anything. The filmmakers just let the premise evolve to a point so many worry about. With strong performances and a bold presentation, this is upsetting but undeniably effective cinema. It just may be a bit too much for some audience members.
Seventeen year old Lea (Lily McInerny) finds normal teenage existence to be a bore. Her lazy days and drunken nights with friends do so little for her, she’s open to just about any kind of a new experience. When a bunch of kids try to rope her into a dine-and-dash that goes poorly, she’s rescued by Tom (Jonathan Tucker). Thankful for the help, she’s also both intrigued and wary of him, considering he’s twice her age. However, he pays attention to her and has a vibe about him that separates him from the boys who fumble with her in the backs of cars. So, a relationship begins to bloom. Her disconnection from life is brightened by his presence, even if there are warning signs galore.
As they begin to secretly date, Lea keeps Tom from her friends and mother (Gretchen Mol). She just doesn’t want to explain why he’s not like how they’d think he is. However, it’s all an illusion and a game. Tom’s patience and kindness begins to veer in a very different direction, one Lea doesn’t understand until she’s already in a spot she’d never have imagined herself in. The worst part? This can happen every day to all too many teenagers.
Both Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker are very good. McInerny is a perfect combination of bored and eager to live. She likes to think she’s mature, but also has a dangerous naivety about her. It’s all done quite well. As for Tucker, he’s quietly charming and menacing in equal measure. Like a coiled snake in the weeds, he bides his time before striking. Supporting players aside from the aforementioned Gretchen Mol include Lily Collias, Angel Grey Cooper, Quinn Frankel, Auden Thornton, and more.
Filmmaker Jamie Dack, along with her co-writer Audrey Findlay never shy away from the darkness of the story. It’s all depicted in such a matter of fact way that you insert all of the horror. Dack and Findlay just lay out the premise and let it build to one natural or potential result. Dack’s direction, as well as their writing, is low-key and almost without passion, but it’s with a purpose. They want Palm Trees and Power Lines to be without manipulation. What happens, happens, and it’s up to you to be upset by it.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is as disturbing a film as there is at Sundance this year. It will shake you to your core, if you’re even willing to watch it. The movie is about as tough a sell as it gets, but if you give it a chance, there’s a lot to appreciate here. It’s just, without question, a rough experience. So, the choice is yours.