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Lea feels lost. It’s the summer before her senior year of high school, and the 17-year-old’s days are spent watching makeup tutorials online and watching reality TV, playing games on her phone, and bask in the Southern California sun. Her father left years ago and her alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) is needy when she’s single and distant when she’s not. She cannot relate to her teenage friends, who seem in thrall to the emotionally stunted neighborhood boys their own age, laughing at their childish jokes and observations and succumbing to their awkward sexual advances.
Enter Tom. After jumping on their dinner bill, Lea is accosted by the chef, who gets physical with her. Tom steps in, blaming the older man for hitting a girl. For Lea, Tom is like a breath of fresh air. He is a person who listens, listens to his desires and his needs. Possessed of a robust masculinity. The last boy she saw attacking her in the back of her car; Tom, meanwhile, will lie next to her in the back of her van and stare up at the stars. But Tom is 34, twice his age, which makes him a predator. Lea knows it, and so do her friends, but the more they berate her for this inappropriate relationship, the more she clings to him. And Tom uses his insecurity to his advantage.
“You are mine, aren’t you? Tom asks him, adding, “You’ll never leave me.” Because nobody loves you like I love you.
Lea and Tom, played to perfection by newcomers Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker, are at the center of Palm trees and power lines, the hauntingly powerful feature debut of Jamie Dack. The film, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (which earned it a Directing Award), earned four Independent Spirit Award nominations and is now out in select theaters and on VOD, traces how Tom grooms Lea to become first his lover and then his property, trafficking her to another man in a seedy motel room not unlike the one he lives in.
Dack, who adapted the film from her 2018 short, which was both based on a past relationship she had when she was 17 with a man in his early 30s.
“I was 17 at the time and he was in his early thirties, and it wasn’t a relationship like Tom and Lea. I used Lea as a proxy for my younger self as I explored This could would have gone wrong if that had been the intentions of this man, ”she says. rolling stone. “That’s when I wrote the script to follow the steps of grooming and focus on the power dynamics involved and the manipulation. I was going through these certain steps: targeting a victim, gaining their trust, fill a need, isolate it, then the abuse begins.”
To prepare for the feature, Dack met an actual survivor of sex trafficking and read a number of survivor stories. She was also inspired by the #MeToo movement, which culminated while she was writing the script. It not only gave her “a little pat on the shoulder that encouraged me to keep writing,” but also caused her to re-evaluate that past relationship.
“Sometimes we can go through life and think things are normal and not think about it much, and then someone says something, or something happens, and there’s a change,” she explains. “It provided a new lens that I was looking through. You hear people sharing their own stories and you start to examine yourself – and maybe you’ve never done that before.
She calls this relationship “a mixed memory” because it “wasn’t bad in any way”, but found the writing process “therapeutic”. The screenings also prompted audience members at Sundance and beyond to share their stories with Dack, which affected how she processed her own experience.
The casting for the feature film proved difficult. It was important for Dack to find a young, inexperienced actor for the role of Lea and a more experienced performer for Tom. Casting director Kate Antognini came across an audition tape of McInerny, who had never acted before, and Dack couldn’t stop thinking about it. Although McInerny was 21 when they shot the film, she looks several years younger, which makes the film terrifyingly realistic – unlike all those projects these days where young people in their twenties and thirties portray high school students.
“It really stands out to me,” she says. “It feels so wrong to me when I watch TV or movies that have that in the cast, and I very consciously decided that she was going to be under 18, so I needed her to be that age- there. I know it’s disturbing, but that’s the point. If you watch real teenagers who look like their age having sex on a show, that’s completely different than having actors in their twenties and thirties. a lot more disturbing. »
Finding his Tom proved more taxing, as many actors balked at playing such a despicable character, but Tucker – whose role as an MMA fighter in Kingdom impressed her – bravely answered the call.
Daddy wanted Palm trees and power lines to subtly and meticulously guide audiences through the steps of grooming and not turn into a cartoonish portrayal of sex trafficking like so many Hollywood movies have.
“There is Takenso people think that trafficking is a person being thrown in the back of a van and not realizing that it can be done without physical violence and without subtle handling and manipulation,” she says.
She didn’t want it to be gratuitous either, pointing to the “unbearable” rape sequence in Gaspar Noé Irreversible like something she was actively trying to avoid. There’s no nudity or blood in Dack’s film, but it’s psychologically graphic because of its minute detail and because we’re trapped in Lea’s perspective.
“I could see that I was making choices that a male director wouldn’t have made,” she says. “And yet, people were so disturbed by my film. I understand that’s upsetting, but there were also times when I thought, all I’m doing is putting you in the perspective of this teenager and for some reason you can’t support. Others did scenes similar to the most disturbing scene in my movie and were much more violent and graphic, and people tolerate it differently. It’s interesting.”
The “disturbing scene” she refers to happens in the third act, and it is indeed one of the most gruesome scenes in recent memory. After Tom inspected Lea with the blinds open and ordered her to perform oral sex on him, he told her that another man would come into the room to have sex with her.
“You told me to take care of yourself. That’s how I’ll take care of you,” he said, twisting his words against her.
Dack and his cast spent a day shooting the scene, which was first shot in one 10-minute continuous take. The version that made the movie is considerably shorter but feels endless. We see a much older man enter the room. Lea is terrified. He talks to her from the ledge, before placing his hand on her crotch. Then he has sex with her. The camera moves to her face, then to the smoke detector in the room, which Lea focuses on as she dissociates. A single tear runs down her face.
“What’s so powerful about this shot is that of course there’s Lily’s tear, but it’s not an extreme close-up where we only see her face,” Dack explains. “It shows part of his clothed body and his hands and head going in and out of the frame.”
She pauses. “People are disturbed by being in his perspective, and for this scene we put the camera outside of his perspective for this wide shot. Sometimes what you hear behind a closed door is more disturbing than hearing it. see rather than being up close and graphic.It plays in real time and does not cut.
Since this is McInerny’s first film, Dack says she did everything she could to make sure her young star was comfortable shooting the sequence.
“The most important thing was to develop my relationship with Lily – one of trust and open communication, especially around the trickier scenes,” Dack explains. “If Lily had a problem at any time, I knew she could say something about it. Even though that scene wasn’t with Jonathan, her presence on set that day was helpful. And her partner The stage performance that day was amazing. When I auditioned this person for this role, I was looking first and foremost at their performance, but also if they made me feel like they were unprofessional.
Dack is currently writing two feature films – one is an original idea and the other is an adaptation of an “Italian short story written in 1947” that she chose. She hopes audiences will connect with Palm trees and power lines and, in some cases, to feel seen.
“I think all kinds of stories need to be told, even ones that scare people and are taboo,” she says. “People relate to it, and it’s important that people see their stories on screen and not just be left alone with internalized guilt and shame.”