Sundance 2022 Review: A Dangerous Spark Ignites the Electrifying “Palm Trees and Power Lines”

“What’s wrong with chasing something that’s beautiful,” asks Tom (Jonathan Tucker) in “Palm Trees and Power Lines” as he spends an afternoon out with Lea (Lily McInerny), a 17-year-old who’s explaining to him the hashtag “chasing sunsets” to him as they look at one in the distance. Twenty years older than her, he isn’t one to pay as much attention to Instagram, but Lea is drawn to him since he’s paying attention to her, seemingly pushed into his arms by a mother (Gretchen Mol) who she finds more interested in finding a guy for herself than in her and friends that are too immature for her tastes. Living at the edge of the suburbs, the age difference makes Tom exciting, but not just in how it makes her feel older but that possibly she could stand on her own outside the only town she’s ever known.

Of course, there’s no such justification for Tom and although you likely know from the start of Jamie Dack’s blistering feature debut that this romance will lead to particularly ugly places, the filmmaker working from a sharp script co-written with Audrey Findlay based on her short of the same name finds new territory well worth exploring as uncomfortable as it gets. You’d actually think things couldn’t get any worse for Lea than in the film’s early moments, stuck at home when her mom can be be rustled out of bed or busy showing houses as a real estate, passing the time with her friend Amber (Quinn Frankel) by bumming cigarettes that they are not old enough yet to purchase from the ashtrays of trash receptacles and having sex not for pleasure, but to break up a monotonous routine. A late night at a diner leads her to lock eyes with Tom at another table, and when he doesn’t have school for another few weeks and he works for himself, saying he does remodel work on his own schedule, the two have all the time in the world to get to know each other and she’s deeply flattered when he actually wants to.

Lea would do well to get to know Tom a little better than she does, which becomes “Palm Trees and Power Lines” main dramatic thrust, but Dack impressively finds a particularly chilling dimension in the relationship when Lea keeps Tom a secret from friends and family and then feels she has no one to confide in when things go sour. Both McInerny and Tucker impressively handle the incredibly delicate material with considerable nuance, never tipping the hand of where the film is going or to make it feel that at least in each other’s company, they’re embarking on something wrong, despite all the sly red flags Dack throws up in the background. When the inevitable happens, it isn’t surprising, but Lea’s reaction is and it’s daring on the part of Dack to follow what’s most appealing about Tom to Lea — the fact that he actually listens to her – to craft a satisfying yet deeply unsettling ending when it may not be anything anyone wants to hear but it is true to the character, based on the fallible education she’s had and the manipulation she’s experienced. Lea may make a few regrettable choices in the film, but illuminating how she got to such a place and refraining from judgment is just one of the many right ones that Dack makes in the bold and stirring drama.

“Palm Trees and Power Lines” will screen virtually through the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th for a 24-hour window beginning at 8 am MT.