Writer-director Jamie Dack has expanded her widely admired 2018 short film Palm Trees and Power Lines into a considerably more thorny and disturbing feature of the same title. Shot verité style on the most banal possible locations, the film, which is making its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival, takes an unvarnished look at an environment that is arid both literally and figuratively, one in which young people seem to be given precious little guidance or structure by family or society. Dack doesn’t explicitly editorialize but makes acutely clear the vulnerability of adolescents left too much to their own devices at a formative age.
Written by Dack and Audrey Findlay, this is a story that could take place more or less anytime, anywhere, centering on teenagers who have nothing to do except lie around a pool, go to the mall or get into trouble, most of the time innocuously. Specifically, this is looking like wasted summer for Lea (Lily McInerny), a 17-year-old who lives in some anonymous and thoroughly banal Southern California neighborhood with her mom Sandra (Gretchen Mol), who’s just broken up with her latest beau.
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It’s an unimpressive group of no-accounts that Lea hangs around with—the boys consider it hilarious to take the girls out to a diner and then run off without paying, and it’s almost painful to observe their stupid behavior. In a bit, the story picks up with a scene that closely resembles the opening of the short: a good-looking dude drives up alongside her and chats her up. After some flattery and cajoling on his part — and Lea jokily saying “Don’t murder me” — she agrees to accept a lift.
The man in question is Tom (Jonathan Tucker). He speaks sympathetically and supportively, listens to her and consolingly advises that, “You should be hanging out with people who are much more on your level.” One significant difference between the short and this feature adaptation is that, originally, the pick-up artist looked to be perhaps in his mid-20s, while Tom admits to being 34, exactly twice Lea’s age.
If the writers jacked up the guy’s age to increase the creepiness factor, they have succeeded, even though Tucker brings a likability factor that, all the same, can’t conceal (to the viewer, anyway) that this guy almost certainly represents trouble. But having absolutely nothing else going on in her life, Lea is open to options.
As Glenn the dentist will be coming over to see Mom the next day, Lea wants to be out of the apartment, and Tom is keen to oblige. Even if you haven’t seen the short film, the feature sets off enough suspicious vibes to convince you that the guy has something other than purely honorable intentions where this teenager is concerned.
When they next get together, Tom tells Lea that he runs his own small business and that “I live my life any way I want.” The guy does have an incredible physique, but also looks to be prematurely graying. When he very properly asks her if she wants to come back to his room, she assents. The next morning they both seem happy.
The sexual politics are certainly different, but the preponderance of vehicles, motels and arid landscapes, the laconic manner of speaking and the mobile camera all remind of road movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, albeit without the rebellious, searching-for-something mind-set. And that’s a very big difference — the characters here can’t even articulate what they’re looking for, if anything, much less go about finding it.
No matter how polite and encouraging Tom may be to Lea, you know he’s up to no good. The storm clouds gather, as it were, but Lea just can’t see them even when Tom mentions that he has a “friend” coming over. A waitress even tries to tip Lea off about how Tom is always there with other girls, but Lea is so needy of affection and attention that she agrees to go off with him to a beach hotel for a few days. “I want to be the one to take care of you from now on,” he says. This may sound fine to naïve Lea, but to the viewer it’s a scarcely veiled threat.
The payoff one has feared and that Tom ultimately confers upon Lea — forcing her into prostitution — is painful and not easy to watch. It’s a life lesson that shouldn’t have to have been learned this way, and Dack doesn’t put any artificial spin on it to alleviate the nasty degradation of it all.
But in her unemphatic narrative manner, Dack chronicles an experience that may have given the victim of this crime a human and experiential awakening that will make her stronger and bolder in future, which is at least one way one can interpret the ending. Now that she’s told this story twice, in different ways and in varying detail, she should be ready to move on to a new canvas.
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