Writer-director Jamie Dack expanded her widely admired 2018 short Palm trees and power lines into a considerably more thorny and ominous feature of the same title. Shot in the most mundane locations possible, the film, which makes its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival, takes an unvarnished look at a literally and figuratively arid environment in which young people seem to have very little guidance or support from family or society. Dack does not editorialize explicitly, but clearly shows the vulnerability of adolescents who are too much left to their own devices at a formative age.
Written by Dack and Audrey Findlay, it’s a story that could take place more or less anytime, anywhere, centering on teenagers who have nothing to do but lay around swimming pool, going to the mall or getting into trouble, mostly harmlessly. . Specifically, it feels like a wasted summer for Lea (Lily McInerny), a 17-year-old who lives in an unnamed and unremarkable Southern California neighborhood with her mother Sandra (Gretchen Mol), who has just broken up with her last beautiful.
It’s an unimpressive group of no-accounts that Lea hangs out with – the boys find it hilarious to take the girls to restaurants and then run off without paying, and it’s almost painful to watch their stupid behavior. Before long, the story picks up with a scene that looks a lot like the opening of the short film: a handsome guy arrives next to her and talks to her. After some flattery and cajoling from her – and Lea jokingly saying “Don’t kill me” – she agrees to accept a lift.
The man in question is Tom (Jonathan Tucker). He speaks sympathetically and supportively, listens to her and gives her consolatory advice, “You should hang out with people who are much more on your level.” One significant difference between the short and this feature film adaptation is that the pickup artist originally appeared to be possibly in his twenties, while Tom admits to being 34, exactly twice his Leah’s age.
If the writers increased the guy’s age to increase the scary factor, they succeeded, even if Tucker brings in a likability factor which, all the same, can’t hide (from the viewer, anyway) that this guy represents almost certainly trouble. But with absolutely nothing else in her life, Lea is open to options.
While Glenn the dentist is coming to see mum the next day, Lea wants to get out of the apartment and Tom wants to help. Even if you haven’t seen the short film, the feature film triggers enough suspicious waves to convince you that the guy has more than purely honorable intentions towards this teenager.
When they next meet, Tom tells Lea that he runs his own small business and “I live my life the way I want to”. The guy has an incredible physique, but also seems to be aging prematurely. When he quite rightly asks her if she wants to come back to her room, she nods. The next morning, they both seem happy.
The sexual politics are certainly different, but the preponderance of vehicles, motels and arid landscapes, the terse way of speaking and the moving camera are all reminiscent of road movies from the late 60s and early 70s, but without the rebellious character and in search of -something of state of mind. And that’s a very big difference – the characters here can’t even voice what they’re looking for, let alone find it.
No matter how polite and encouraging Tom may be to Lea, you know he’s no use. The storm clouds are gathering, so to speak, but Lea just can’t see them even when Tom mentions he has a “friend” coming. A waitress even tries to tell Lea that Tom is still there with other girls, but Lea is so in need of affection and attention that she agrees to go 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 said. This may seem fine to naive Lea, but to the viewer, it’s a thinly veiled threat.
The feared payoff that Tom ultimately bestows on Lea – forcing her into prostitution – is painful and not easy to watch. It’s a life lesson that shouldn’t have been learned that way, and Dack doesn’t put any artificial twists on it to lessen the nasty degradation of it all.
But in his unabashed narrative manner, Dack recounts an experience that may have given the victim of this crime a human, experiential awakening that will make him stronger and bolder in the future, which is at least one way to interpret the ending. Now that she’s told this story twice, in different ways and with varying detail, she should be ready to move on to a new canvas.