In a speech made following the battle of El Alamein, in November of 1942, the then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill spoke the phrase, “the end of the beginning”. These words are applicable to director Jamie Dack’s disquieting and impressive feature debut, Palm Trees and Power Lines (2022).
An adaptation of her 2018 short film of the same name, the story centres on 17-year-old high school student Lea (Lily McInerny), who spends her summer break hanging out with her best friend Amber (Quinn Frankel). The pair attract the attention of their male peers, among them Jared (Timothy Taratchila), who shares a friends-with-benefits arrangement with Lea.
Early in the film, we sense an undercurrent of disconnection after a quick and unsatisfying hook up in the back of Jared’s car. He feels like a stud, sex filling him with a feeling of maturity, but Lea is left yearning for something more. It’s unlikely her friends can fulfil this need that transcends sexual intimacy, even their immature banter is tedious.
When the boys one night hightail it out of a restaurant without paying, Lea and Amber are hesitant. It’s this silly antic that sees Lea cross paths with Tom, a man we later learn is twice her age, who comes to her rescue when she’s collared. This is the proverbial “end of the beginning”, a moment that will lead her down a rabbit-hole of manipulation, as Tom slowly and methodically reveals the ulterior motives for his interest.
In her video introduction for the Sundance Film Festival, Dack says, “The backdrop of Lea’s world consists of palm trees, power lines, strip malls, chain restaurants, neon signs, and the flight path near her house. Each passing plane reminding her how stuck she is. This image connects the audience to Leah’s physical world and acts as a window into her emotional life.” The opening image of Lea walking across the dusty ground, the power lines overhead, wearing her headphones and humming to a song, is the picture of a young woman lost. We can’t know that yet, but this image, combined with an awareness of the plot, has an ethereal vibe that lays the foundations upon which Lea’s loneliness is exposed.
Palm Trees and Power Lines reminds us that we can be lonely even when we have family and friends. Lea believes her single-parent mother Sandra (Gretchen Mol), only shows an interest in her when she is in-between a string of boyfriends. She tells her mother that some people shouldn’t have children. Her words cut deep, but amidst the hurt, we can sense the love between mother and daughter. This moment speaks to the existential cruelty of bringing a child into the world and burdening them with the suffering that blights the optimism of life.
The backdrop of Lea’s world fuels her disillusionment. It’s a prison a young person must escape if they want their life to be something more than just survival. Sandra is an independent realtor, but we can sense that she’s unfulfilled. All the signs point to Lea following the same path.
Tom is symbolic of an answer to an existential crisis, but as his true motivations are revealed, we’re reminded that in a capitalist society, hope is a false currency. It benefits the social and cultural machine, not the individual. The question is whether Lea is an example of someone that cannot escape her milieu. Is she looking for someone to save her, instead of saving herself by finding a means to escape her small Southern Californian town, and make her future somewhere else? Whatever the answer may be, the question remains whether some people are doomed to just survive, a yearning for freedom following them around, until they learn to numb themselves to such aspirations. This appears to have been the path walked by her mother.
The older man talks about how living life on his own terms is pure freedom. He stirs in Lea this desire and exploits her want for someone to save her. He tells her that nobody can love her the way he will. But of course, what he offers is the antithesis of freedom. In so doing, he exploits Lea’s strained personal relationships to deprive her of personal power. She’s too young to understand his Machiavellian ploy, and Dack masterfully explores with a simple narrative structure how our vulnerabilities, anger, frustration, anxiety, and hurt can be exploited to deny us power over our own lives.
If the planes passing overhead remind Lea how stuck she is, the experience of being pimped out to a stranger in a motel room will mark her as a victim of trauma. Her pursuit of freedom becomes an escalation of feeling stuck – not the liberation she desperately hoped this mature man’s affection and interest would offer.
With Palm Trees and Power Lines Dack has rendered a present, powerful, and mature exploration of adolescent grooming, both on a human and technical level. It’s a consciously political and social work that explores the consequences of disillusionment, broken families, and the impact of choice.
She says, “The film deals with adolescent vulnerability and how that can be exploited. It explores the feelings of loneliness and insecurity that often lead young women and girls into unhealthy or inappropriate relationships.” The film doesn’t explore suicide, mental health issues, or poverty. Instead, it focuses on toxic relationships, but the seeds of Lea’s story echo the causes of these other issues. This is the film’s political and social conscience that elevates its topic to a broader discussion about the effects of not only “loneliness and insecurity”, but disillusionment and absence of opportunity. This is the existential crisis that blights generations.
Palm Trees and Power Lines emotionally engage its audience. Shot in a respectful way, Dack focuses on communicating the themes and ideas. It’s not about framing the sexual acts, whether gentle acts of intimacy or an act of prostitution. It’s about seeing Lea, seeing her vulnerability, seeing the formation of trauma, and how her vulnerability is exposed.
Lea escapes her loneliness and finds affection, but she is damaged by Tom. She has the willpower and strength to extricate herself from being exploited, and here is where Dack displays emotional intelligence. Power cannot be reclaimed so quickly, because people are a labyrinth of emotional and cognitive conflicts and contradictions. If Freud’s theory of the “death drive” is correct, then the survival instinct is countered by a willingness to put ourselves in harm’s way.
Our lives are shaped not only by our own choices but the choices of others. Here, there’s a loose thread to English novelist and playwright JB Priestley’s play, An Inspector Calls (1945). There’s an important contrast that defines how life is impacted by the choices of others in the two stories. Priestley’s play is about the complacency of choice. The actions of the Birlings family are without malicious intent, and yet they push a young woman toward suicide. Sandra’s ambivalence echoes the Birlings family, but it’s Tom’s actions to groom and pimp her out that is done with intent. His actions are absent of consideration for her emotional well-being, as he is clearly willing to risk traumatising a vulnerable teenager for financial gain.
Indeed, Lea is caught between two realities, both damaging. She’ll likely move back and forth between the two, using the one to escape the other until – or if – she’s able to escape her loneliness and toxic dependency on Tom. The tragedy of the story, however, is that Lea may never escape. She’ll likely be haunted by her experiences, and they’ll define her in the eyes of others. Dack isn’t interested in finding a resolution. She plunges viewers into a personal tragedy of a young woman who deserved better.
The “end of the beginning” is Lea’s transition into adulthood. Lea’s bleak hopes contrast with the hopeful expectations we have for Dack. Her strong vision, supported by phenomenal performances by her leading actors, signals the emergence of a filmmaker of note – and the end of her own beginning as a filmmaker.