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.

Sundance Film Festival 2022 Review: Palm Trees and Power Lines ★★★★

Palm Trees and Power Lines is a devastating, judgement-free glimpse into the increasingly unhealthy relationship between a seventeen year old and thirty-four year old man. Bruised and vulnerable, this drama – the debut feature from writer-director Jamie Dack – is a meticulously crafted piece told from the disillusioned perspective of its lead played by tremendous newcomer Lily McInerny.

Seventeen year old Lea (McInerny) finds herself bored during her summer, disassociating from her juvenile friends and disconnected from her mother. She becomes intrigued by thirty-four year old Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who is quick to woo her, seemingly unbothered by the blisteringly apparent age gap. Tom’s investment and apparent sole focus on Lea sees her intoxicated by his charm – unaware of its more worrying, abusive connotations. This power balance continues to pivot further into Tom’s favour, reaching a gut-wrenching conclusion highlighting the abuses Lea is subject to.

Dack presents a picture of the disconnected Lea. Her relationship with her romantically pre-occupied mother is near non-existent, whilst a sex scene in the back of a car with a fellow teen showcases her unfulfillment as she distractedly zones out. Her life feels lethargic, her lack of connection and fulfilment, a side-note to her general vulnerability. Framed with tight close-ups, shot from lower levels by cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj we get a sense of the minute world that Lea resides in. Lily McInerny strikes us with a wide-eyed performance, she is a passive participant in her own life, until the arrival of Tom.

The muscled, handsome Tom is visibly older and is introduced as a knight in shining armour, protecting Lea from an irate waiter after the seventeen year old and her friends ducked on their bill. He gradually follows Lea home despite her musings about not getting into cars with strange men, charming her with music and a sense of light jesting about their respective tastes. Lea is isolated and her initial polite refusal to walk home is neglected by Tom – warning bells should be ringing and they undoubtedly will to viewers, just not Lea. This is a recurring motif that makes Palm Trees and Power Lines so affecting – Tom’s increasingly problematic behaviour amps up, apparent to viewers as burgeoningly problematic, yet charming and romantic to the vulnerable seventeen year old.

Afternoon dates and moments relaxing at each other’s respective homes see their age disconnect highlighted – Lea comments on Instagram hashtags, Tom unaware of her reference point. Strangers banging on the door of Tom’s apartment and him having to rectify vaguely explained ‘situations’ provide further red flags, yet Lea falls further under his spell. After a first kiss, Lea continues to view Tom as a convincing romantic presence in her life, whilst viewers will undoubtedly notice the multitude of concerning developments passing the awestruck Lea by. A waitress at a local diner mentioning that Tom comes in with a lot of young girls and asking Lea if she needs help, much to Lea’s confusion, serves as a troubling precursor to later events. Lea is bowled over by what she perceives as Tom’s romantic statements such as “You’re never gonna leave me,” and “No one will love you the way I love you,” hallmarks of controlling relationships.

Dack presents events with a convincing realism and understated manner – making the growing concerns, gradual abuses and harrowing grooming all the more hard-hitting. Refreshingly this is a depiction free from condemnation or judgement, telling the story through Lea’s awe-struck perspective only invests us in her troubling journey even further – delivered with a naturalistic skill by the magnificent Lily McInerny. As Tom suggests he wants to take Lea away on a romantic break, just the two of them, the grooming leads to a disturbing finale. Set at the edge of a bed with Dack utilising a stationary camera giving the film a horrifying voyeuristic demeanour that is not easily forgotten.

Tucker is tremendous in this complex, challenging role. Delivering a performance which to viewers will undoubtedly strike as a concerning presence, but to Lea, a charming affable romantic partner. This requires an actor of considerate skill and Tucker delivers this with an impressive conviction.

Palm Trees and Power Lines plays as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Find out more details here.

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