There’s been a few films lately to explore the sexual exploitation of young women by much older men – Zola and Red Rocket for two – and they don’t get any easier to watch. This subtle indie, which plays out in a nondescript corner of California, cuts like a shard of glass.
The setting is important because the age of consent in California is 18 and Lea (Lily McInerny) is only 17 when she meets Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a handsome, seemingly easy going dude twice her age. So the spark that slowly takes light between them isn’t just transgressive, it’s illegal. That red flag should override Lea’s gratitude when he steps in to protect her from an angry restaurant owner when she follows her mates in doing a runner. It should override any flattery she feels that he’s taken an interest in her life – one that even she finds deadening and moribund.
But she’s 17 and has no radar for a bad man. And as first-time feature filmmaker Jamie Dack patiently shows us, she has no guidance to fall back on or positive role models around her. Her dad has long since bailed out on the family and her mum (Gretchen Mol) has a conveyor belt of random men passing through. The absence of a mother-daughter bond is keenly felt here, as is the one-sided, transactional attitude to sex Lea encounters with her mum and friends alike.
The closest she has to a sibling is her best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel), but she spreads her secrets through their judgy, cutting social group. It’s easy to see how an older man who listens to her could be so seductive – even one who lives in a motel and has vague Robert-Patrick-in-Terminator-2 vibes.
It’s a compelling story of exploitation that with no easy answers
In collaboration with co-writer Audrey Findlay, Dack broadens out her own 2018 short to take us right into the end game of this toxic connection. Can-kicking scenes of teenagers hanging out and a coming-of-age love story of sorts give way to something darker. The creepy sound design, unblinking camerawork and minimalist scoring work in sync to bathe you in the discomfort of Lea’s experiences. At times, it provokes active revulsion.
And newcomer McInerny anchors it all with a sensitive performance that marks her out as one to watch. Her character’s tribulations aren’t easy to witness but you’re always standing four-square in her corner as she goes through them. It’s a compelling, edgy story of exploitation with no easy answers.
Palm Trees and Power Lines premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.