“Palm Trees and Power Lines,” the story of a teenage girl who is groomed by a man twice her age, received nearly universal acclaim when it debuted at Sundance in 2022, going on to win an award for Jamie Dack’s direction.
And yet, despite all the good reviews and honors, it took months for the film to find a distributor. The reason, Dack says, is many film companies didn’t want to touch a movie that tackles such a controversial subject.
“People were scared,” says Dack. “There were many companies that wanted to take meetings with me and that told me they wanted to work with me on my next project. They were blunt. They said, ‘we love this film, but we just can’t distribute it.'”
One company even made Dack an offer, but suggested that she should cut a pivotal scene involving her central character’s fateful decision to take her relationship with the older man in a dangerous direction (to say more would be to spoil a key element of the film).
“It wasn’t a scene we could get rid of,” says Dack. “It would have been an entirely different movie.”
But eventually Momentum Pictures bought the film and released it this weekend in theaters and on-demand. It also picked up four Independent Spirit Awards nominations, including nods for best first feature, screenplay and for the performances of Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker, who play teenage Lea and her predatory lover, Tom. Critics have hailed “Palm Trees and Power Lines” for its revelatory look at how a vulnerable teenager can be manipulated and abused. The Washington Post praised the Dack for “an impressively assured debut,” while Variety lauded the director for telling the story with “…a masterly kind of slow-motion horror.”
When it came to depicting this kind of horror story, Dack says she wanted to explore the kind of situation that might make someone like Lea open to Tom’s approach. Lea lives in a “suburban malaise.” She’s bored with her life in a drab part of Southern California. Her mother (Gretchen Mol) is indifferent; her father is absent. Even the title, Dack points out, is a reference to what Lea sees every day on her limited horizon.
“Lea has a perfect storm of vulnerabilities,” says Dack. “Nobody has ever paid attention to her in this way, and nobody has ever loved her in this way. Tom is a man who is finally paying attention to her and meeting needs that have never been met before.”
Even before “Palm Trees and Power Lines” started filming, Dack says she struggled to get financing and to cast the picture. McInerny was a newcomer, so investors worried she didn’t have the kind of major presence who could guarantee business. And when it came time to find an actor willing to portray Tom, a malevolent figure who preys on Lea’s weaknesses, she didn’t find a lot of takers until Tucker, best known for his work on “Kingdom,” signed on.
“I thought it would be super easy to find a guy in his 30s,” says Dack. “It’s good role, and there are so many actors I can choose from. But a lot of actors and their agents turned it down. They’d say ‘This isn’t really his brand.’ People didn’t want to play a predator.”
“Palm Trees and Power Lines” started as a short film that Dack made in 2018. But the story wasn’t just expanded into feature length. Dack also decided to increase the age gap between Lea and Tom to more fully explore the power differential in their relationship. She was inspired to revisit the story and her personal connection to the material because of the #MeToo movement.
“The movement made a lot of women start to reconsider things,” says Dack. “I began looking back on some of my experiences as a teenager and a relationship that I had with someone who was older than me. When thought about that time in my life, I saw things differently. It made me go, ‘Well, what happened here? And were you really in control as much as you thought you were?'”
Getting “Palm Trees and Power Lines” into theaters may have been a long and often frustrating effort, but Dack insists it’s not going to change the kind of movies she wants to make. She’s developing two scripts that are told from a female perspective and that are personal stories.
“This experience was disappointing and challenging,” says Dack. “On one hand, it doesn’t feel great. On the other, it inspires me to keep making the work that I want to make. Of course, I want commercial success, but it’s more important that I tell the stories that I want to tell.”