A Terrifying Tale of a Teenage Girl Groomed Into Being Sex Trafficked
Jamie Dack’s Palm Trees and Power Lines is about losing a person. By the end, its 17-year-old heroine, Lea (played by a great Lily McInerny) seems lost to herself, unsure of who to be. It’s the summer before her senior year. Trouble starts with a chance encounter with an older man, Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who is twice Lea’s age but nevertheless takes an interest. This is merely how it starts. Palm Trees is a film about a young woman groomed, unsuspectingly, into sex work by a charming 34-year-old man. He starts off on the right foot, as a knight in shining armor during a meaningless scrape at a restaurant, and burrows his way into her affections with experienced patience. This is a movie operating on the principle that the most routine form of this violence isn’t sensational, but subtle. He doesn’t “seem” like the type to traffic women, as he’s the dreamy guy with the pickup truck, the biceps, the masculine calm that lends authority without aggression. That is the danger.
But only part. Palm Trees is the kind of movie in which young women like Lea and her best friend, Katie, are inclined to be cool enough, disaffected enough, for the boys who don’t really care about them — who would flee at the first sight of complication — to want to keep them around. And in which sex has that familiar, vague sense of currency: having it is better than not, more adult than not, even if no one can say why, exactly. The movie isn’t a sociological study, but Dack has an analytical sense of why these young people cave in on themselves in this way. That’s what we spend much of the movie watching them do, at first. Lea and Katie sunbathing, wondering if they’re being looked at. Lea watching makeup tutorials on her phone, making her mother (played by Gretchen Mol) feel pathetic for being so needy and lovelorn as she, Lea, who is just as needy, takes pride in seeming less desperate. The two of them, Lea and Katie, chiming in when the boys are talking about the size of another girl’s breasts. This is all familiar material; it’s “being one of the boys,” it’s seeing your parents and realizing — with despair — that they may be your future.
It changes when Tom arrives. This is grooming, the film makes clear, not seduction: Dack takes care not to make it feel pleasurable for the audience, makes sure we understand that Tom is playing a long game without the film ever resorting to feeling like one. Palm Trees works because its lead actors, McInerny and Tucker, understand that only one of these characters knows what’s happening. And so we get a Lea who knows this is wrong — she hides it; she tells Katie only enough detail to seem cool for dating someone unknown to her peers — yet openly crushes, allows herself to feel what Tom is laboring to make her feel about herself, him, her life, her friends. We can see Tucker’s smoothness and know to be wary of it. And we can see why Lea is reeled in anyway.
Palm Trees is more than a little reminiscent of other recent, effective forays into the danger and disillusionment of women’s late teenage years. Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank comes to mind because of its central mother and daughter, who, like Lea and her mother, are at odds, with the daughters wanting more and better for themselves than their mothers seem to have gotten. Eliza Hittman’s films come to mind, too, for their portraits of a world that, in the quietest ways, punishes young women for having a sexuality at all. Dack is not a subtly stylish realist like Arnold and her approach has less of Hittman’s sensuous curiosity. But the world of Palm Trees is sculpted with care. There’s a bleached, uniform coolness to it all, that kind that suits teenage boredom, every day blending into the next. There’s a warmth lacking in the images that only further convinces us of Lea’s hunger to feel it. And there’s an emphasis on Lea taking the world in, assessing it, assessing herself. Everything that makes Tom feel suspicious to us, the knowing audience, only makes him exciting to her. The film is methodical: It shows us a predator at work, the gradual steps, the slow-reeling inch as he lures Lea into his confidence. But even the word “lure” feels too loud for Dack’s approach here. The point isn’t to offer a neat lesson on how a groomer works, but to tie us so completely to the film’s heroine that we understand her vulnerabilities completely. We see her, and we see what Tom sees and plans to exploit in her.
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Dack wisely avoids the latent sensationalism of this story, courting neither heightened moral gloom nor that variety of punishingly explicit sex that goes out of its way to defeat women like Lea in order to make dubious points about their vulnerability to defeat. Lea’s scenes alone with men are among the most stylistically restrained in the entire movie, in fact, especially when they concern sex. There are no fireworks, none of the manic terror of outright violence. It is so much more depressingly mundane than all of that. Squeezed into the backseat of a guy’s car, spirited away to a dingy motel room, there is nothing here but joylessness for Lea, but the kind of joylessness that you don’t yet have a name for at 17 years old, the kind which — as the girl’s mother is positioned to remind us — only becomes visible to us after it’s already reshaped our entire approach to life. This sex isn’t about pleasure, and it certainly isn’t about love. It’s the kind of sex in which we focus on a character’s face, watch her will herself into a satisfaction that she does not really feel, see as her face flits between questions and feelings. It’s a face that’s asking if any of this is worth it. And McInerny does the idea a service by flooding the screen with emotions in conflict.
Long before Palm Trees becomes an outright film about sex work, it establishes itself as a film about the dire social transaction that sex can be — an old story, tragic every time, and effective here. At one point, during an argument between Lea and Katie, one woman charges the other with hanging around with boys who all know that they have a chance at fucking her. Which is why, the point is implied, they keep her around. Palm Trees isn’t equating these boys, who are Lea’s age, with the older men in this story. Nor is it keen to land on obvious ideas about badness and blame. It lands elsewhere — with the question, the problem of being lost. This, the movie shows us, is what grooming does. It isn’t about who these men are. It’s about who they convince us that we need them to be.
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