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Sundance movie review: 'Palm Trees and Power Lines' a sobering portrayal of predators

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Sundance movie review: 'Palm Trees and Power Lines' a sobering portrayal of predators
Lea (Lily McInerny) has a relationship with older man Tom (Jonathan Tucker). Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- Licorice Pizza provoked debate about a mostly platonic relationship between a 25-year-old woman and a teenager, which was worth interrogating. Palm Trees and Power Lines, which premiered virtually at the Sundance Film Festival, addresses grooming and coercion head on.

Lea (Lily McInerny) is a 17-year-old hanging out with her friends near the end of summer. When they dine and ditch, 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker) rescues Lea from the cook chasing after her.

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Tom and Lea form a friendship that seems to maintain boundaries at first. So later, when a waitress at a different restaurant asks Lea if she needs help, Lea is confused.

That incident does trigger Tom's more possessive nature. He keeps asking for a little more and a little more. The film grows uncomfortable so gradually that the viewer might wonder how it got that far.

That is entirely the point, because that's how grooming works. Predators don't ask for something outrageous at first. They escalate gradually. So by the time they're doing something illegal with a minor, it's only a little bit worse than the last thing Lea agreed to.

Writers Jamie Dack, who also directed, and Audrey Findlay, seem to understand how Tom's attention validates Lea. She doesn't have healthy contemporary relationships with which to compare him, only immature sex-crazed boys. Lea also has a conflicted relationship with her mother's (Gretchen Mol) dating life.

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Dack lets the relationship between Lea and Tom be uncomfortable, but one can feel confident the filmmakers respected the actors. Palm Trees and Power Lines doesn't show any nudity, and sex scenes are obscured for the camera. McInerny is in her underwear or bikinis a lot, but it's Tom's proximity to her in that state of dress that is more uncomfortable.

McInerny and her co-stars give really natural performances as teenagers. They spend a lot of time on their phones and social media, dabble in sex, but otherwise just bum around with no obligations or responsibilities. They should be allowed to enjoy that before graduation.

Tucker shows how charming Tom can be, but does not make excuses for him. When Tom and Lea first meet, he acts like he knew she was too young when she said she was 17.

One might imagine that was part of his act. He knew what he was doing. If he acts like he knows the rules, Lea trusts him more that they're the exception.

The nature of Palm Trees and Power Lines's material means it's not a Saturday night crowd pleaser, but Sundance trades in challenging films. For those looking for a mature, dramatic exploration of this topic, Palm Trees and Power Lines could sound the alarm the way Kids did in 1995.

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Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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