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Sundance’s most disturbing movie is ‘Palm Trees and Power Lines’, about Grooming and Sex Trafficking

One way to gauge the popularity of a festival film is how often you hear the phrase, “Wow, that’s disturbing…” after the roll of the film.

There isn’t exactly an arms race to traumatize and worry audiences. And one hallmark of festivals, especially those that celebrate indie cinema, is to highlight films that can be more quirky, more nuanced, more serious, and focused on human emotions. more grounded people than larger studio projects. Case in point: last year record discount at Sundance for CODAwarm, heavy music film about a culturally deaf family expected to score a series Oscar nominations in a few weeks.

But it’s hard to ignore that, in recent years at Sundance Film Festival, the titles everyone’s been talking about — whether on the streets of Park City or now, online after virtual screenings — seem to be titles that solve difficult problems and leave viewers itching or complaining. their level of provocation. This year, it’s the undisputed movie Palm trees and power linesa terrifying and brutal reality film about a teenager who is groomed and then trafficked for sex by a man twice her age.

Critics, who have seen the film, directed by Jamie Dack and adapted from her 2018 short, are praising it for balancing the delicate portrayal of a coming-of-age story with its portrayal frankly, if appalled, about the act of sexual grooming. is the methodical manipulation of a person with the aim of exploiting or abusing them. Equally, those who have seen the film are raving about how difficult it is to watch — something that has caused quite a stir since its release earlier this week.

In that regard, it is following the same trajectory of popular Sundance titles that have disrupted the festival buzz because of their unsettling nature — something audiences have struggled with because of the the film also happens to be well thought out and produced.

i’m thinking about 2018 Story Written by screenwriter and director Jennifer Fox, the film both stunned and moved audiences by portraying an adult woman (Laura Dern) trying to realize she was raped at the age of 13. graphically depict those gruesome sexual assault scenes. Or Year 2020 Never Rarely Sometimes Alwaysfrom Eliza Hittman, revealing the horrifying truth about what a teenager must go through to get an abortion, or Emerald Fennell’s Promising young womana stylized and hotly contested chronicle of a woman seeking revenge after being sexually assaulted by her friends.

Then there are documentaries, like 2019 Leaving Neverlandin which men alleging that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children share their unfiltered stories; Year 2020 On profilegive a voice to women who allege they have been sexually assaulted by hip-hop legend Russell Simmons; this year We need to talk about Cosby, which details the disgraced icon’s decades of predatory behavior; and Phoenix is ​​rising, in which actress Evan Rachel Wood said Marilyn Manson “actually raped” her while filming a music video. All of these movies are notable for their vivid visuals, graphics and, for some, triggering detail with which survivors recount their attacks, as well as the wounds left over. .

In Palm trees and power lines, newcomer Lily McInerny, in a charming and confident breakout performance, plays Lea. Summer is here. She’s 17. She’s a whirlpool of buried emotions, uncertainty about herself and how she feels about her life.

Her single mom lets her down and she acts in ways that teenage girls usually do. She has friends, and along with their youthful efforts to appear “grown up”—around drinking and smoking, shrugging to find bad sex, small talk crudely and pranking minors. But her involvement in this is perfunctory. The truth is she’s bored. She is listless, depressed, and shy. This does not stimulate; that’s all she has to do, and she gravitates through it because she feels like she has to. These kids spend all their time together but don’t know each other at all.

So it feels like a shock to her entire existence when she crosses paths with Tom (played by Jonathan Tucker), a 34-year-old mechanic who she meets at a bar. eat as he bravely intervenes after the manager assaults her after she and her friends. all without paying.

Immediately, Tom exudes an intensity that makes the audience light up a red flag field, but he softens it with an air of normalcy that makes Lea intrigue and soften. This handsome man, for his age, must have been much more interesting than her peers and her monotonous life was showing immediate, flattering, and from the outset interest. unceasingly devoted to her. It was the serenity of his conduct towards her that masked its grotesque and evil ambition. In her eyes, he was not an eccentric.

The outward calm as he fell in love with her, despite the speed at which he accelerated their eventual relationship, led her to believe it was all real – so real that she instinctively dismissed any hint. any warning that she may feel or receive from her friends.

“Immediately, Tom exudes an intensity that makes the audience light up a red flag field, but he softens it with an air of normalcy that makes Lea intrigue and soften.”

And the warning signs come. They arrive when he invites her back to “his place”, which turns out to be a motel. Lea couldn’t hide her disappointment; even her disgust. But she’s so smitten with him and his attention – not to mention this fantasy of romance with a real, interesting man she’s beginning to trust – that she likes it. and have sex with him, convincing herself that this was a positive experience for her. He is possessive and manipulative, quickly isolating her from her friends and mother. “Some people shouldn’t have children,” he told her, a line she repeated to her mother defiantly.

He gains power and trust through flattery. (“You are not like any other girl I know.” “I feel like I can open up to you.”) When someone tried to intervene, such as the waitress, warned that Tom had already broken up. took other young girls to the diner before or When her friends called him a pedophile, Tom did a job of grooming so efficient that only made her defiant and insisted on only spending time with her. all the time for him.

The third act of the film is where things get even more complicated, as the danger Lea is facing because of her trust in Tom becomes more apparent. All we’ve seen in the beginning of Tom as a reptile and a predator starts to be recognized by Lea, but by that point it’s probably too late. As a spectator, you can guess what will happen next, but that doesn’t make watching it any less content or, for the horror of it all, nearly impossible to watch.

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Jamie Dack, director of Palm trees and power lines

Sundance Film Festival

There are people who have walked out Story At the Sundance premiere four years ago, real-life scenes showed a 13-year-old girl having what she thought was consensual sex with the man who raped her. I wonder what the direct response would be Palm trees and power lines had a non-virtual festival. From their couches, do viewers turn off the movie, unable to be satisfied with what they’re watching?

At film festivals, and especially at Sundance, it feels like you’re discovering something, whether it’s the next great movie or a new way of telling a story. It’s only in recent years that filmmakers (mostly women) have felt encouraged in the face of the terrible truth about things like sexual assault, grooming, and the lingering traumas that plague them. what these events do to survivors — and do it with uncompromising realism that reflects the gravity of these horrors. It is also possible that, only in recent times, audiences have felt prepared to allow, open to the disturbing nature of this subject and these sequences, to understand the impact.

So it’s always interesting to assess what might define the festival. Is it something warm and uplifting like that CODA, which premiered last January at a time when the industry, and people in general, needed a story like that? There are films in that vein that have earned rave reviews at this year’s festival — emotional charmers like Cha Cha is so smooth and I agree?movies feel good and there are no better words, simply nice.

Then there’s a movie like Palm trees and power lines, has attracted the attention of the festival press since its premiere. Both types of films make up what a festival is: diverse of experiences, full of sensations and provocative. And there’s no denying that, punishing as it is, Dack’s movies are all of that.

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