London 2022

Palm Trees and Power Lines review – Californian coming-of-ager is bleak but utterly believable

Jamie Dack's unnerving grooming drama is an impressive calling card for both its writer-director and her young star Lily McInerny

Coming of age in California – even in the state's quieter cities like Lady Bird’s Sacramento – generally has a touch of class and thrill on screen, as sunshine and possibility greet young adults into a new phase of their lives. There is no such fun to be found in Jamie Dack’s mostly excellent feature debut Palm Trees and Power Lines, expanding on her own short film from a few years ago. A study of how teenage boredom and reclusiveness can be exploited by sinister adult men, it’s one of 2022’s biggest downers and a film it’s almost impossible to not have a visceral reaction to.

Impressive newcomer Lily McInerny stars as Lea, a 17-year-old with no love for her own life, listlessly wasting her summer holidays around friends she doesn’t seem to like that much and a slightly depressed mum who’s always prioritising her latest boyfriend ahead of Lea. It’s a discontent that makes her vulnerable to the advances of 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a charismatic, nebulously “self-employed” man who slowly becomes Lea’s ever more controlling boyfriend.

It’s a grim story, told grimly (a washed-out colour palette captures how ugly and small Lea’s world can be, boxed in by dead-end friends in a dead-end small town), but Dack keeps it compelling. The horror that Tom represents is clear to us, but Dack also manages to keep the entire film convincingly from Lea’s perspective, so we also understand why she’s drawn to him. Boys her age are good for nothing, rating their female classmates out of 10 and skipping out on paying for fast-food burgers, while Tom seems to represent a smarter and more insightful kind of man – it helps that Tucker is excellent, a thin veneer of charisma hiding a frightening malice.

Palm Trees and Power Lines does eventually go to some very dark places, but it remains utterly believable throughout, carefully setting its plot dominoes in motion before letting them fall all the way to a seriously bleak ending. It might have proved too much if not for its superb central breakout performance from McInerny. Her nervous teenage energy gives even the more innocuous scenes a rattle of unease, making the genuine darkness feel that much more real. Stylistically and formally, this isn’t a particularly ambitious directorial debut, but what it aims to do, it does very well – it’s the kind of film you’ll want to wash off with a shower.

Palm Trees and Power Lines was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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