Savvy viewers will immediately pick up on the nature of Tom’s “work,” and the horror of this film comes from watching Lea ignore, rationalize, or just plain fail to see the many red flags Tom throws in her path. It’s clear what Tom is up to, but what Lea thinks is less obvious. “Palm Trees and Power Lines” shows promise in this area in its early scenes, showing the sexually charged atmosphere that surrounds Lea and demonstrating the ways that her mom taught her to put men before everything else. Aside from this one area of her life, however, her personality remains elusive.
Lea’s body language is passive, with drooping shoulders and downcast eyes. She has no hobbies besides a casual interest in music, and she doesn’t know what she wants to do after she finishes high school. We do know that she’s smart and cynical enough that she doesn’t blindly obey every adult in her life. But the overall lack of definition in her character means that, as she goes deeper down the rabbit hole of grooming and sexual abuse, Lea becomes defined solely by her victimhood.
Dack relies on the performances to connect the character and audience, framing the more shocking scenes to protect her young actress (this is McInerny’s first feature film) and lingering on McInerny’s face in long, unbroken close-ups. The fleeting furrow in McInerny’s brow as she realizes what Tom actually wants from her, and her eyes welling up with tears as she scans the room looking for a way out, are heartbreaking. These shots recall a scene in Audrey Diwan’s film “Happening,” where the camera remains static as its main character tries not to scream during a painful at-home abortion.
The protagonist in “Happening” is a more fully realized person, however, which makes it easier to connect with her at that moment. Indeed, 17-year-olds often have no idea what they’re into or who they want to be in real life. But the procedural emphasis on what happens to Lea in “Palm Trees and Power Lines,” and not what she thinks or feels about it, means that in the end, what sticks is the trauma, and not the person experiencing it.
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