Lea feels lost. It’s the summer before her senior year of high school, and the 17-year-old’s days are spent watching online makeup tutorials and reality TV, playing games on her phone, and relaxing under the Southern California sun. Her father walked out years ago, and her bubbly mother (Gretchen Mol) is needy when she’s single and distant when she’s not. She can’t relate to her teenage friends, who seem enamored of emotionally stunted neighborhood boys their own age, laugh at their childish jokes and observations, and succumb to their clumsy sexual overtures.
Enter Empty. After jumping out on their meal bill, Lea is accosted by the chef, who gets physical with her. Tom steps in and blames the older man for hitting a girl. For Lea, Tom feels like a breath of fresh air. He is a good listener, attentive to her wishes and needs. Possesses a robust masculinity. The last boy she saw pumped away from her in the back of his car; Tom, on the other hand, wants to lie down next to her in the back of his pickup and look at the stars. But Tom is 34, or twice her age, which makes him a predator. Lea knows it, as do her friends, but the more they chastise her for the inappropriate relationship, the more she clings to him. And Tom uses his uncertainty to his advantage.
“You’re mine, aren’t you?” Tom asks her, adding, “You’ll never leave me. Because no one loves you like I love you.”
Lea and Tom, played to perfection by newcomers Lily McInerny and Jonathan Tucker, take center stage Palm trees and power lines, Jamie Dack’s hauntingly powerful directorial debut. The film, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (earning her a director’s award), earned four Independent Spirit Award nominations, and is now out in select theaters and VOD, shows how Tom grooms Lea to become first his lover and then his property , and traded her to another man in a seedy motel room not unlike the one he lives in.
Dack, who adapted the film from her 2018 short film, based both on a past relationship she had as a 17-year-old with a man in his early 30s.
“I was 17 at the time and he was in his early 30s and it wasn’t a relationship like Tom and Leas. I used Lea as a proxy for my younger self as I explored what could has gone wrong if it had been this man’s intentions,” she says Rolling stones. “That’s when I wrote the script to follow the stages of grooming and focus on the power dynamics at play and the manipulation. I followed these specific stages: target a victim, gain their trust, fill a need, isolate them, and then the abuse begins.”
To prepare for the feature, Dack met with a real-life sex-trafficking survivor and read a number of survivors’ stories. She was also inspired by the #MeToo movement, which was raging while writing the script. It not only gave her “a little pat on the back that encouraged me to keep writing,” but also made her reevaluate the previous relationship.
“Sometimes we can go through life thinking things are normal and not think about them too much, and then someone says something or something happens and there’s a shift,” she explains. “It gave me a new lens to look through. You hear people share their own stories and you start to examine your own — and maybe you never did before.”
She calls that relationship “a mixed memory” as it was “by no means bad,” but found the writing process “therapeutic.” Screenings have also prompted audiences at Sundance and beyond to share their stories with Dack, influencing how she has processed her own experience.
Casting the feature proved difficult. It was important for Dack to find a young, inexperienced actor for the role of Lea and a more veteran actor for Tom. Casting director Kate Antognini came across an audition tape of McInerny, who had never performed before, and Dack couldn’t stop thinking about it. Although McInerny was 21 when they shot the film, she looks years younger, which makes the film feel frighteningly realistic – unlike all the projects these days where twenty- and thirty-somethings portray high school students.
“It really takes me out of it,” she says. “It feels so fake to me when I see TV or movies that have that in the casting, and I very consciously decided that she should be under 18, so I needed her to look that age. I know it’s disturbing, but that’s the point. If you see actual teenagers who look like their age having sex in a show, it’s completely different than having actors in their twenties and thirties. It is a lot more disturbing.”
Finding her Tom proved more arduous as many actors balked at embodying such a despicable character, but Tucker – whose role as an MMA fighter in Kingdom impressed her – courageously answered the call.
Dack wanted Palm trees and power lines to subtly and carefully guide the audience through the stages of grooming and not devolve into a cartoonish portrait of sex trafficking as so many Hollywood films have.
“There is Takenso people think that human trafficking is someone being thrown in the back of a van and don’t realize that it can be done without physical violence and subtle grooming and manipulation,” she says.
She also didn’t want it to be gratuitous, pointing to the “unbearable” rape sequence in Gaspar Noés Irreversible as something she actively tried to avoid. There is no nudity or blood in Dack’s film, yet it is psychologically graphic because of its meticulous detail and because we are trapped in Lea’s perspective.
“I could see that I was making choices that a male director wouldn’t have made,” she maintains. “And yet people were so disturbed by my film. I understand that it’s disturbing, but there were also times when I thought that all I’m doing is putting you in the perspective of this teenage girl, and of someone or for another reason, you can’t handle it. Others have done similar scenes to the most disturbing scene in my film and been much more violent and graphic, and people tolerate it differently. It’s interesting.”
The “disturbing scene” she refers to occurs in the third act, and it is indeed one of the more horrific scenes in recent times. After Tom inspects Lea with the blinds open and orders her to perform oral sex on him, he tells her that another man will be coming to the room to have sex with her.
“You asked me to take care of you. That’s how I would take care of you,” he says, turning her words on her.
Dack and her actors spent a day shooting the scene, which was originally shot in one continuous 10-minute take. The version that made the film is considerably shorter but feels interminable. We see a much older man enter the room. Lea is scared. He talks her off the edge before placing her hand on his crotch. Then he has sex with her. The camera pans in on her face, then the room’s smoke alarm, which Lea focuses on as she separates. A single tear runs down her face.
“What’s so powerful about that shot is, of course, there’s Lily’s tear, but it’s not an extreme close-up where we’re just seeing her face,” Dack explains. “It shows part of her clothed body, and his hands and his head come in and out of the frame.”
She pauses. “People are disturbed by being in her perspective, and for that scene we put the camera outside of her perspective for the wide shot. Sometimes what you hear behind a closed door is more disturbing than seeing it in terms of being close and graphic. It plays in real time and doesn’t cut.”
Since this is McInerny’s first film, Dack says she did everything she could to make sure her young star was comfortable shooting the sequence.
“The most important thing was developing my relationship with Lily—one of trust and open communication, especially around the more sensitive scenes,” says Dack. “If Lily had a problem at any point, I knew she could say something about it. Even though that one scene wasn’t with Jonathan, it was helpful that he was on set that day. And her scene partner that day was amazing. When I auditioned that person for that role, I looked first and foremost for their performance, but also if they gave me the impression that they weren’t professional.”
Dack is currently writing two features—one is an original idea, and the other is an adaptation of “an Italian short story written in 1947” that she chose. She hopes the audience will connect with Palm trees and power lines and in some cases feel seen.
“I think all kinds of stories need to be told – even the ones that scare people and feel taboo,” she says. “People have related to it, and it’s important for people to see their stories on screen and not just sit with it on their own with internalized guilt and shame.”