Lea (Lily McInerny) is like any 17-year-old high school teenager on summer break. Some kids get jobs. Others go on a family vacation and try to ignore their summer reading assignments for as long as possible. In Palm Trees and Power Lines, Lea tries to make the best out of a mundane, small-town situation. Her home situation is not necessarily the ideal place for relaxation.
Her mother, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), weaves in and out of heartbreak. She often looks for some emotional connection (often leaning on Lea), but there’s a wedge between them. Chalk it up to adolescent feelings, but there’s a sad sense of co-dependency there. Lea hangs out with her best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel), but that only suffices until Emma (Lily Collias) shows up – much to her apathy. The boys they hang out with don’t serve as a social spark either – a hookup partner named Jared (Timothy Taratchila) leads Lea with little excitement. If anything, her walking through a field listening to music with power lines overhead is the only amount of joy she has.
One night at a diner, Lea’s compatriots decide to ditch the bill. Lea begrudgingly does so, but not without some accosting from a cook. Out of nowhere, a man named Tom (Jonathan Tucker) comes up to save the day. Immediately, you ask yourself, “Where the hell did he come from? Was he waiting there the entire time?” It’s something writer/director Jamie Peck wants you to remember because if something feels off, it usually is.
An expansion of her award-winning 2018 short film, Power Lines, is disturbing, for lack of a better word. The authentic conversation on how grooming happens and the tactics being used to place young girls into these horrible positions. After the incident, Tom offers Lea a ride home – not taking no for an answer. When they go to exchange numbers (to protect her), Tom mentions that he’s 34. Lea tells him her actual age, and with a slight chuckle, he decides to put his number in her phone anyway.
That disgusting feat of audacity is one of many Peck chooses to show. It’s not even that Tom is particularly persuasive or charming (not that this inappropriate relationship would warrant that). He’s new in a girl’s life who is looking for it. Exploiting this, Tom starts to wither away Lea’s slight defense mechanisms systematically – saying she’s too mature for her friends or “some people shouldn’t have kids” in terms of her mother. This is all to isolate Lea for his devious gain.
The audience can see this from a mile away, but much to the credit of Peck’s storytelling and McInerny’s acting, there’s a sheen of possibility that Lea can’t shake. This is even with blaring red flags. While they eat at a diner, a waitress approaches Lea and tells her she can call somebody for her. When Tom offers to take her back to his place, it’s at some seedy motel. Although Power Lines shows the difficulties of elongating a short film in its middle act, the escalation of this (I guess you can call it a relationship) comes to a shocking realization.
Peck doesn’t take this lightly with the film’s most heartbreaking scene. Instead, like in a couple of scenes, they focus on Lea’s face and the emptiness of it all. Lea and her mother, Sandra, seek something to fulfill them. Sadly, they can’t look to each other, but it’s because they wish for something outside of their household. Palm Trees and Power Lines raises a bigger question about how things like this can continue – even after the stark revelation has been realized.
Teenagers should be allowed to be on a search for identity, but Peck’s film is a cautionary tale chronicling those who use this wistfulness as a weapon.