There were two things that hooked me when I first saw Palm Trees and Power Lines, an unnerving portrayal of what a teenage girl looks like, at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. First, that the film, which is finally getting a limited release and on demand this week in the US, it was one of the most evocative depictions of suburban adolescence I’ve ever seen – a languid summer of sagging couch and knobby knees, afternoon ice cream and sex jokes, a bunch of lies and talk about nothing. And second, that the portrayal of the relationship between 17-year-old Lea, played by a younger-looking 22-year-old Lily McInerny, and 34-year-old Tom, played by a thirty-something Jonathan Tucker, was a remarkably tricky balancing act, which has stayed with me for over a year.
Writer/director Jamie Dack’s debut accomplishes a double vision: You can see, in the film’s riveting first act, why Lea finds herself drawn to Tom, a building contractor she meets for the first time in a late-night diner. You can also see that he is manipulating her. Lea is bored and isolated, frustrated with her single working mother and the tight hems of her world. Tom has a car and a job and doesn’t answer to anyone. He takes her fledgling interests – in singing, in worrying about the future, in herself – seriously. The boys she hangs out with, who grossly rate attractiveness and fumble with sex in the back of a car, have fresh faces and teenage metabolisms. Tom has muscles and moves with confidence. He’s a thrill, his attention heady and validating. He’s also clearly, for anyone watching, with red flags. (Lea can see a little too – she hides the truth from her friends, who half-jokingly call him a “pervert.”)
It’s one of the best, most sensitive and devastating depictions of both the care, magnetism and error of this particular age-gap relationship I’ve seen – the result of “a delicate balance I had to strike”, Dack told the Guardian. There has to be “moments where you’re kind of shocked by it, and even disgusted, and then other moments where you can really feel their chemistry.” It becomes clear how Lea sees a forbidden and misunderstood romance; we see something sinister in the way he looks at her, in how he diminishes her mother character, in the fact that her “her place” is a modest motel.
“What I really wanted to avoid was people thinking she was stupid for ignoring those red flags,” Dack said. The goal was to “really establish the vulnerabilities that she has that make her ripe for this kind of thing to happen.” Lea is also initially hesitant in her motel room, but we watch in real-time as she transforms that doubt into curiosity, confidence and desire. “All of her needs, in a way, were met through that relationship,” McInerny said, “and it’s only in hindsight that you realize how manipulative each interaction was.”
The specter of hindsight — the film leaves a lingering impression of events that Lea will be reprocessing and replaying in her head for years — is a personal one for Dack, who grew up in suburban Maryland and began writing the script for the 2018 short that eventually expanded. for the feature based on its own story. What initially began as an exploration of an age-gap relationship morphed into something more sinister and specific as the #MeToo movement brought a cascade of reassessments and revelations, patterns that complicated memories of consent or complicity. “It changed the way I looked at the relationship I had,” Dack said. “Suddenly, I thought, wait a second. And I think I’ve done that for a lot of women – there are relationships that we thought we were in control of, or ‘this guy likes me because I’m mature.’ Between age and #MeToo, “you suddenly go ‘there are ways I was being manipulated, or there were ways this wasn’t right.’”
Dack had written many drafts of a screenplay about an inappropriate age-gap relationship, but around the start of the MeToo movement in 2017, she started to look back on it differently. She added a more concrete and open narrative of preparation to the script, “because I wanted to use the protagonist as a representative of my younger self, while exploring what might have happened if this man’s intentions had been different”.
The cast was essential for this to work. Most movies and TV shows about age gap relationships are marred by the plausibility of the age gap and therefore the tone of the power differential. That was the problem with An Education, the 2009 film in which 24-year-old Carey Mulligan played a 16-year-old courted by an older con man. Ditto for Hulu’s 2020 series A Teacher, which ended episodes with Rainn’s warnings about grooming but framed her relationship between a high school student, played by 24-year-old Nick Robinson, and the thirty-something teacher Kate Mara’s years as sexy, accused. In casting Lea, Dack looked for a newcomer – someone people had no previous association with, so that viewers could “lose themselves in her performance and feel like they’re watching a real teenager and not someone who’s already grown up.” seen her playing this teenager before,” Dack said. “I really get away from movies and TV, where these 25-year-olds play high school girls.” McInerny was 19 when she first read for the role, 22 during filming, but she looks so petite compared to Tom, so youngmore child than adult, that you can never help thinking there is something fundamentally crass about his interest in her.
Instead, the intimate scenes are staged to primarily witness Lea’s processing of emotions – excitement, confusion, excitement; eventually, in the final stroke of the film, horror, fear and disillusionment. “This is a movie about a girl being exploited, so I didn’t want to do that any more than what was already happening in the story,” Dack said. There is no nudity; the camera is angled to primarily capture Lea’s experience rather than her body. During a devastating scene in the final stage, the camera focuses on Lea’s face as the encounter unfolds in excruciating real-time.
Since the advent of #MeToo, movies and larger shows have employed intimacy coordinators to carefully choreograph and communicate the boundaries of sex scenes. Dack and McInerny described a similar intent and environment on the set of their small indie film. “I think the key to all of this was opening up channels of communication between the three of us and getting really comfortable,” said Dack. McInerny described the intimate scenes, which range from making out in a car to chilling exploration, as “all extremely choreographed” and “the best thing you can hope for from an intimate scene – there are no surprises, but there is room to live authentically”.
“It was really helpful to have a woman behind the camera for those scenes as well,” she added. The film crew was mostly female, including cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, which is still rare. “When there’s a woman closer to you, in addition to your scene partner, and especially in that hotel room scene, it was extremely helpful.”
The silent scream of the film’s final third has stuck with me for months, in part because it never breaks through to physical violence. Like the recent psychological thriller Alice, Darling, Palm Trees and Power Lines, it frighteningly portrays the potency of emotional coercion, the damage that can be done with words and intimacy alone. “He’s not really using force, and I think it’s people that they really relate to,” Dack said of audience reactions to the film. “Because, in that sense, you can miss it when it’s happening and then look back on it differently.”
The film has already resonated with people reevaluating their own past relationships — mostly women, some men. “It’s pretty crazy how many women have gone through this. This is not unique,” Dack said. “I hope people can create a new sense of empathy and understanding and a willingness to discuss these kinds of things,” McInerny said. I’ve left him wondering, for months since then, how Lea would deal with what happened to her – what beliefs she would abandon and correct, what stories she would retell or reframe, what empathy she would extend to herself.