One way to gauge a film festival movie’s buzz is by how often you hear the phrase, “Well, that was disturbing…” after the credits roll.
It’s not that there’s an arms race, exactly, to traumatize and unsettle audiences. And a hallmark of festivals, especially ones that celebrate independent cinema, is spotlighting films that might be quirkier, more nuanced, more earnest, and centered around more grounded, human emotion than larger studio projects. Case in point: last year’s record-breaking sale at Sundance for CODA, the heartwarming, music-heavy drama about a culturally deaf family that is expected to score a slew of Oscar nominations in a few weeks.
But it is hard to ignore that, in recent years at the Sundance Film Festival, the titles that have everyone talking—whether on the streets of Park City or, now, online after virtual screenings—seem to be the ones that tackle difficult subject matter and have viewers either itching with discomfort or admiring how provocative they are. This year, that is indisputably the film Palm Trees and Power Lines, an unnerving and brutally realistic film about a teenager who is groomed and then sexually trafficked by a man twice her age.
Critics who have seen the film, directed by Jamie Dack and adapted from her 2018 short, are praising it for balancing a delicate portrayal of a coming-of-age story with a frank, if horrifying, depiction of the act of sexual grooming, which is the methodical manipulation of a person with the intent to exploit or abuse them. In equal measure, those who’ve seen it are gossiping about just how hard the film is to watch—something that has been making headlines since its debut earlier this week.
In that regard, it’s following a similar trajectory of noteworthy Sundance titles that broke through the festival noise because of their disturbing nature—something that audiences grappled with because the films also happened to be so considered and well-made.
I’m thinking about 2018’s The Tale from writer-director Jennifer Fox, which both stunned and moved audiences with its depiction of a grown woman (Laura Dern) working through the realization that she was raped at age 13, graphically depicting those horrifying sexual-assault scenes. Or 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, from Eliza Hittman, which revealed the horrifying truth about what a teenager must undergo in order to receive an abortion, or Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a stylized and hotly debated chronicle of a woman seeking vengeance after a friend’s sexual assault.
Then there are the documentaries, like 2019’s Leaving Neverland, in which men who alleged that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children share their unfiltered stories; 2020’s On the Record, which gave voice to the women who alleged they had been sexually assaulted by hip-hop legend Russell Simmons; this year’s We Need to Talk About Cosby, which details the disgraced icon’s decades of predatory behavior; and Phoenix Rising, in which actress Evan Rachel Wood says Marilyn Manson “essentially raped” her while shooting a music video. All of these films made headlines because of the vivid, graphic, and, for some, triggering detail with which survivors recount their assaults, as well as the trauma that remains.
In Palm Trees and Power Lines, newcomer Lily McInerny, in a captivating and confident breakout performance, plays Lea. It’s summer. She’s 17. She’s a swirl of buried emotions, unsure of herself and how to feel about her life.
Her single mother frustrates her, and she acts out in the ways teenage girls tend to. She has friends, and goes along with their youthful attempts at acting “grown-up”—sitting around drinking and smoking, shrugging her way through bad sex, gossiping crudely, and playing juvenile pranks. But her participation in this is perfunctory. The truth is she’s bored. She’s listless, depressed, and shy. This isn’t stimulating; it’s all there is to do, and she floats through it passionlessly because she feels like she’s supposed to. These kids spend all their time together yet don’t know each other at all.
So it’s like a jolt to her entire existence when she crosses paths with Tom (played by Jonathan Tucker), a 34-year-old mechanic who she meets at a diner when he heroically intervenes after the manager physically assaults her after she and her friends run out without paying.
Immediately, Tom exudes an intensity that raises a field of red flags to the audience, but he tempers that with a casualness that intrigues and calms Lea in equal measure. This handsome man who, by virtue of being older, must be so much more interesting than her peers and her monotonous life is showing immediate, flattering, and, from the start, unrelenting interest in her. That there’s a serenity in his behavior toward her masks its unsavory and grotesque ambition. In her eyes, he’s no weirdo.
The outward calmness of his infatuation with her, despite the speed with which he accelerates their eventual relationship, makes her believe that it’s all genuine—so genuine that she instinctively dismisses any warning signs she may feel, or receive from her friends.
“Immediately, Tom exudes an intensity that raises a field of red flags to the audience, but he tempers that with a casualness that intrigues and calms Lea in equal measure.”
And those warning signs come. They come when he invites her back to “his place,” which turns out to be a motel. Lea can’t hide her disappointment; even her disgust. But she’s so enamored of him and his attention—not to mention the fantasy of this romance with a real, interesting man who she’s begun to trust—that she relents and has sex with him, convincing herself that this is a positive experience for her. He’s possessive and manipulative, quickly isolating her from her friends and her mother. “Some people just shouldn’t have children,” he tells her, a line that she repeats to her mom in defiance.
He gains power and trust through flattery. (“You’re not like any girl I know.” “I feel like I can be open with you.”) When anyone attempts to intervene, like the waitress who warns her that Tom has brought other young girls to the diner before or when her friends call him a pedophile, Tom has already done just such an effective job of grooming her that it only makes her more defiant and insistent on spending all her time only with him.
The film’s third act is where things become even more troubling, as the danger that Lea is facing because of her trust in Tom comes into clearer focus. Everything we had seen from the start about Tom being a creep and a predator starts to become realized by Lea, but at that point it’s perhaps too late. As an audience member, you may have guessed what will happen next, but that doesn’t make watching it unfold any less visceral or, because of the horror of it all, nearly impossible to watch.
There are people who walked out of The Tale at its Sundance premiere four years ago during the realistic scenes showing a 13-year-old girl having what she thought was consensual sex with the man who coerced her. I wonder what the in-person reaction would have been to Palm Trees and Power Lines had the festival not been virtual. From their couches, did viewers turn off the film, unable to stomach what they were seeing?
At film festivals, and especially at Sundance, there’s a desire to feel like you’re discovering something, whether it’s the next great film or a new way to tell stories. It’s only in recent years that (mostly women) filmmakers have felt emboldened to confront the ugly truth of things like sexual assault, grooming, and the lingering trauma these events cause survivors—and do it with the unflinching realism that reflects the severity of these horrors. Maybe, too, it’s only in the same recent time that audiences have felt prepared to give permission, to open themselves up to the disturbing nature of this subject matter and these sequences, in order to understand the impact.
Because of that, it’s always interesting to gauge what might define the festival. Is it something warm and uplifting like CODA, which premiered last January at a time when the industry, and people in general, needed a story like that? There are films in that vein that have won heaps of praise at this year’s festival—emotional charmers like Cha Cha Real Smooth and Am I OK?, movies that are feel-good and, for lack of a better word, just plain nice.
Then there’s a film like Palm Trees and Power Lines, which has devoured the festival press’s attention since its premiere. Both kinds of films are what make a festival what it should be: a diversity of experience, full of feeling, and provocative. And there’s no denying that, punishing as it is, Dack’s film is all of that.