Lily McInerny stars as a 17-year-old girl who is groomed by a predator in Jamie Dack’s feature debut.
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By Manohla Dargis
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It starts with a wink at a diner. When the 17-year-old, Lea (Lily McInerny), the heroine of “Palm Trees and Power Lines” sees it — or maybe just the man delivering it — her world falls off its axis. The wink flusters Lea; it also apparently primes her. So when the guy later rolls up next to her while she’s walking home, his mouth and engine both running, she responds to his attention, somehow oblivious to the Klaxon horns of warning shrieking in the viewer’s head.
Directed by Jamie Dack, who shares screenplay credit with Audrey Findlay, “Palm Trees” tracks the bleak, depressing story of Lea, who falls for the wrong guy only to tumble headlong into the abyss. Set in an especially cheerless pocket of Southern California, where high-voltage lines loom over the sparsely treed landscape, it opens in the summer. Lea is on a break and conspicuously bored. Under the inattentive watch of her single mom (Gretchen Mol, doing what she can), Lea drifts through the days and nights, sunbathing in her yard and hanging out with friends. She gets high, hooks up and so it sluggishly goes.
Everything shifts when the diner guy rolls into her life. He calls himself Tom (Jonathan Tucker), although once he gets talking it’s hard to believe anything that he says. Lea, though, is nothing if not credulous, and after jokingly ordering him not to murder her, she climbs in his truck next to him. She awkwardly lights a cigarette, he asks for a drag, the camera framing their hands hovering near each other. Lea and Tom chat, and her wariness soon eases, his flirting and her interest warming the cab. They keep chatting, she asks his age — he’s 34 — and by the time that he drops her off, Lea is a goner and the story is on its way.
Ambitious, torpid, wildly overlong and frustratingly underdeveloped, “Palm Trees” follows Lea as she falls for Tom, who turns out to be as awful — and as much a near-parody of villainy — as his clichéd smooth talk. He’s less overtly sleazy and certainly less well-written than the pimp played by Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver,” but Tom’s moves and words come right from the same predator playbook. Unfortunately, and curiously for a 21st-century sentient teenager with a phone in her back pocket, Lea seems not to have watched a single movie, television show, newscast, Instagram story or viral TikTok about human trafficking.
It would be easier to believe Lea’s sorry tale, her naïveté and spiraling trajectory, if she had more of a discernible personality. McInerny gives the character a convincing physical diffidence, a droopy reserve that, by turns, registers as shyness, apathy and self-protectiveness, and which can make this slight, already young-looking performer look even younger than her character’s age. But Lea’s personality is as lacking in expressive detail as her bland house and cramped world, and she rarely comes persuasively alive and then not for long, which might be interesting if it seemed intentional. Instead, too often, she is a narratively convenient blank.
That’s a problem for a movie about sexual agency and sexual exploitation. Dack rightly doesn’t pass judgment on Lea, and she remains on the character’s side throughout. But because she never gets in the teen’s head and even seems oddly incurious about the girl’s inner life, she fails to adequately engage with questions of sexual consent, free will and whether Lea’s choices (or those of any underage child) are truly her own. Dack takes obvious care to make sure that the filmmaking and camerawork don’t further exploit the character. Yet it’s a bummer that the ethical and political thoughtfulness that she extends during Lea’s most harrowingly vulnerable moments doesn’t extend to the rest of the movie.
Palm Trees and Power Lines
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.
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