Jamie Dack’s unsettling but empathetic drama shows what grooming actually is
Among the increasingly insane and dangerous culture wars we’ve found ourselves thrust into in recent years is whether or not merely explaining to a child what it means to be queer or transgender is inappropriate. For the rational-minded, it teaches children empathy and acceptance. For those less so, it’s akin to showing them pornography, and corrupting their innocence. The word “grooming” is used, although no one seems to know exactly what that means, except that it’s inflammatory and effectively shuts down any hope of a productive conversation.
Jamie Dack’s debut feature Palm Trees and Power Lines illustrated what grooming actually is: the act of luring someone into your control with praise, gifts, and, most importantly, attention. It shows that there’s a method to it, and how effective it is, particularly when it involves young people who are desperate to be seen. It’s honest, sobering and unsettling, and, for some of us, all too real.
Lea (Lily McInerny) is an unhappy teenager spending a painfully dull summer in a nondescript California suburb. Abandoned by her father for his new family, her mother, Sandra (Gretchen Mol), is either smothering or neglectful, depending on whether or not she’s single at the time. Lea spends much of her time with a group of kids who don’t seem to like each other so much as they just tolerate each other’s presence. The clumsy, unsatisfying sex she has with one of the boys in the group is merely to pass the time rather than any kind of expression of affection or desire, but at least it’s better than coming home to an empty house.
Snagged for pulling a dine and dash (and immediately left to take the fall by her so-called “friends”), Lea is rescued by Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who hones in on her with laser precision. Tom is handsome, charming, respectful, and, most importantly, takes an interest in Lea. That he’s twice her age is of little consequence. If anything, it’s exciting: a man of the world, who could probably have any woman he wants, finds her fascinating and wants to spend time with her. What an amazing thing to not be treated like an inconvenience or a third wheel.
If you had a Tom in your life when you were young and naive, much of what occurs in Palm Trees and Power Lines, particularly in the “courtship” phase of his and Lea’s relationship, will sound queasily familiar. These kinds of predators, they know exactly what to say to get their victims into their thrall. It’s practically a script, because hearing such things as “You’re not like other girls” and “You’re so mature for your age” is like catnip to someone lonely and insecure. The audience knows what Tom is up to the minute he steps in to play the white knight for Lea, but she doesn’t recognize it, because why would she? He’s nice to her, he listens to her, he makes her feel special. Even when he begins to make her do things she doesn’t really want to do, he’s gently persuasive rather than aggressive. He cares about her, at a time when no one else in her life seems to.
Expanding on her own original short film, Dack, along with co-screenwriter Audrey Findlay, makes a confident debut. The script is careful to not portray Tom as an over-the-top monster. Men like him, they wouldn’t be able to do what they do if they weren’t smooth talkers, or didn’t know how to get on someone’s good side. As clear as it is that Tom eventually means to do Lea harm, it’s impossible to feel anything but empathy for Lea’s failure to recognize it. She’s not dumb, or bad, she just needs someone, anyone in her life to make her feel like she matters, and unfortunately, Tom fits that role for her.
It’s also frank in Tom’s seduction of Lea, and their intimate moments uncomfortably emphasize the power differential between them. In less assured and sensitive hands, they would come off, even inadvertently, as titillating. But here, Leah’s unease clashes with her desire to make Tom happy, and watching them play-act being a normal couple is a profoundly unpleasant experience. There is never one moment in Palm Trees and Power Lines when you can see Lea as anything but a kid, or Tom as a grown man who’s bent her to his will. Hollywood and the music industry have a long and sordid history of portraying such relationships as harmless, even sweetly romantic (looking right at you, Manhattan). Dack’s film is stark and honest: it should make you uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, it might be worth asking yourself why.
Palm Trees and Power Lines is currently in limited theatrical release & premieres on VOD March 3rd.