Depiction isn’t endorsement, nevertheless it’s not a viewpoint both. That’s the battle for author/director Jamie Dack in “Palm Bushes and Energy Strains,” a movie that methodically dramatizes, step-by-step, the strategy by which predators groom susceptible younger girls and coerce them into intercourse work. These occasions unfold with a way of sickening inevitability, and when the scenes everyone knows are coming lastly come, they’re as icky and exhausting to observe as they need to be. However past easy documentation, the movie’s intentions are fuzzy.
Within the opening scenes of this appropriately downbeat indie, we watch 17-year-old Lea (Lily McInerny) combating together with her mother Sandra (Gretchen Mol), watching make-up tutorials on YouTube, and hanging round with a bunch of children that Lea doesn’t like all that a lot, however they’ve beer and pot and that’s ok for her. It’s all typical teenage stuff, similar to Lea’s want to be seen as older and extra mature than she really is. Lea doesn’t really feel welcome at residence on the nights when one among her mother’s many boyfriends is staying over, and he or she will get bored guzzling Colt 45 and scrolling via Instagram together with her mates. So she spends numerous time wandering the generic SoCal suburb that provides the movie its title, ready for somebody to inform her who she is.
That makes her an ideal goal for Tom (Jonathan Tucker), a 34-year-old man who “innocently” provides Lea a experience residence after a disastrous dine-and-dash incident at a late-night diner. Tom drives a pleasant truck and all the time has cash in his pocket; he tells Lea that he “owns a small enterprise” and leaves it at that. Tucker’s efficiency is creepy from the leap: He stares unblinkingly at McInerny when she’s speaking, alternates between insulting and flattering her, and all the time positions his physique so he’s hovering over her a lot smaller body.
Issues worsen halfway through after Lea and Tom have had intercourse for the primary time. He’s been steadily escalating his rhetoric, telling her that “you’re by no means going to depart me” and that “no person’s ever going to like you want I like you.” They’re hanging out within the motel room the place Tom lives when there’s a loud, panicky banging on the door. Tom steps out to deal with some enterprise and tells Lea that the girl exterior is a “buddy” who wanted assist “with a man she’s seeing.” “Like a boyfriend?” Lea asks. Positive, shut sufficient.
Savvy viewers will instantly decide up on the nature of Tom’s “work,” and the horror of this movie comes from watching Lea ignore, rationalize, or simply plain overlook the numerous crimson flags Tom throws in her path. It’s clear what Tom is as much as, however what Lea thinks is much less apparent. “Palm Bushes and Energy Strains” exhibits promise on this space in its early scenes, exhibiting the sexually charged ambiance that surrounds Lea and demonstrating the ways in which her mother taught her to place males at first else. Apart from this one space of her life, nonetheless, her character stays elusive.
Lea’s physique language is passive, with drooping shoulders and downcast eyes. She has no hobbies apart from an off-the-cuff curiosity in music, and he or she doesn’t know what she desires to do after she finishes highschool. We do know that she’s good and cynical sufficient that she doesn’t blindly obey each grownup in her life. However the total lack of definition in her character signifies that, as she goes deeper down the rabbit gap of grooming and sexual abuse, Lea turns into outlined solely by her victimhood.
Dack depends on the performances to attach the character and viewers, framing the extra surprising scenes to guard her younger actress (that is McInerny’s first characteristic movie) and lingering on McInerny’s face in lengthy, unbroken close-ups. The fleeting furrow in McInerny’s forehead as she realizes what Tom really desires from her, and her eyes welling up with tears as she scans the room on the lookout for a manner out, are heartbreaking. These photographs recall a scene in Audrey Diwan’s movie “Occurring,” the place the camera stays static as its important character tries to not scream throughout a painful at-home abortion.
The protagonist in “Occurring” is a extra absolutely realized individual, nonetheless, which makes it simpler to attach together with her at that second. Certainly, 17-year-olds typically don’t know what they’re into or who they need to be in actual life. However the procedural emphasis on what occurs to Lea in “Palm Bushes and Energy Strains,” and never what she thinks or feels about it, signifies that ultimately, what sticks is the trauma, and never the individual experiencing it.