A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2021

PALMER jj
 

2021, R, 110 mins.

Justin Timberlake as Eddie Palmer  /  Ryder Allen as Sam  /  Juno Temple as Shelly  /  Alisha Wainwright as Maggie Hayes  /  June Squibb as Vivian Palmer  /  Dean Winters as Jerry

Directed by Fisher Stevens  /  Written by Cheryl Guerriero

ORIGINAL FILM

Justin Timberlake has had a relatively shaky career as far as the movies go.  

He has certainly been effectively in supporting roles in the past, as was the case in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, ALPHA DOG, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, but for every one one of those there's a RUNNER RUNNER, SOUTHLAND TALES, or BAD TEACHER.  I still concede, though, that the pop star can be decent when given just the right movie role, and he's quite stellar in the new Apple TV+ original film PALMER, playing an ex-con that's trying to get a new lease on life outside of the slammer, but is given multiple curveballs thrown his way in the process.  This Fisher Stevens directed effort will hardly score points for originality (it traverses along some awfully familiar and predictable territory as far as redemption story arcs go), but he offers up some welcome surprises along the way to shake up genre conventions, like some clever twists and noble minded themes of gender identity and inclusion.  PALMER doesn't always work, but it's poignantly rendered and tugs at just enough heart strings without coming off as annoyingly manipulative. 

And J.T. has arguably been given his most well thought out and complex role as the titular character, who was once a promising college football star turned convict for crimes that the screenplay very slowly, and refreshingly never reveals too soon.  After spending many years locked up, Palmer decides to venture back to his old home town in Louisiana, where he not only has to face his checkered past, but also has to reacquaint himself with his friends and locals while trying to secure work and a place to live.  He meets back up with his caring grandmother in Vivian (a wonderful June Squibb, disappointingly underused here), who insists that Palmer get respectable quick by getting a job, earning rent money, and attending church every Sunday with her.  Palmer seems equal to the task, and very quickly gets a job as a janitor at the town's elementary school, but his ex-con status puts him on a very short lease with his employers.   

As Palmer tries to acclimate to his new home and job, he can't help but notice Vivian's trailer home residing neighbor in Shelly (Juno Temple), who is - for lack of a better description - drug and alcohol addicted trailer trash.  Being a troubled woman makes it awfully hard for her to be a nurturing mother to her young son in Sam (a wonderful Ryder Allen), and one day - and without any warning - she all but disappears, leaving poor Sammy on Vivian's doorstep looking for a place to crash.  She always welcomes Sam with open arms (this is apparently not the first time that Shelly has gone AWOL), but then - mild spoiler - Palmer is dealt a crushing blow with the sudden death of Vivian, leaving it up to him to tend to the daily needs of Sam.  Very soon it becomes apparent that Sam is a different kind of handful, seeing as he's a boy that has definitive feminine leanings, which the ultra macho good ol' boy in Palmer can't understand.  Slowly but surely, Palmer grows to accept Sam's eccentricities and begins to enjoy surrogate parenthood, and he's helped along the way by Sam's thoughtful teacher in Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), but just when all seems content in Palmer's life his past demons begin to lurk back up to the surface to threaten his new stability and happiness. 

 

 

One of the more compelling angles to this story is the core and budding relationship between Palmer and the boy, which, on a superficial level, seems lifted from countless other similar films.  Of course, we've seen films about hardened men with troubled pasts finding a new purpose when being forced by circumstance to tend over a child, who will unavoidably melt their hearts in the process (hell, even the recent western in NEWS OF THE WORLD is grounded in this).  That basic narrative trajectory is present here, but Palmer's journey to becoming a guardian to Sam is made all the more intriguing because he not only has to care for a boy in emotional need after his mother abandoned him , but also has to accept the fact that Sam is a non-gender conformer, which forces Palmer to reflect on his own values and notions of masculinity.  That's the compelling heart to PALMER: It's basically about an ex-criminal becoming an impromptu parent, yes, but it also examines what it means to be a real man and what that, in the process, means for growing to accept a different generation's desire to enjoy life outside of strict gender norms.  And this process certainly isn't easy for the country bumpkin that is Palmer, who at first is quietly revolted by Sam's leanings towards Barbie dolls, TV shows involving princesses, makeup, and tea parties.  But the more time he spends with Sam - and the more he sees the child bullied because of his proclivities - the more he begins to heed the call of respecting and protecting this boy for who he is, which is not assisted by the less than progressive minded environment they both reside in. 

It's the evolution of the Palmer character via his ties to this boy that helps elevate this film above crude and overused genre conventions.  The scenes that Timberlake and Allen share are among the best on display here:  We see Sam as being wholly comfortable and confident with who he wants to be, and that rubs off positively on Palmer, who's been written off by most in life as a total screw up.  PALMER really hits its strides when it shows this odd couple pairing each trying to learn the ropes of their respective routines, adjusting on the fly to their mutual needs.  Seeing Sam slowly get the love he deserves from Palmer is undeniably heart warming, and witnessing Palmer become a better and more embracing person by challenging what he considers as traditional parental and male norms is equally touching.  Timberlake is rock solid in a surprisingly low key performance here that doesn't try to overly telegraph what's going on in his character's mind, mostly because Palmer is learning as he's going.  The actor is also good at capturing the complexity of this damaged man, who was broken by a past ill deed that cost him dearly that struggles to subvert any violent impulses he has in the present against those that burned him.  Newcomer Allen is a remarkable find, holding is own against his more seasoned co-star with a richly naturalistic performance in a very tricky role for any child actor to harness; there's not an inauthentic beat to be had here. 

Not all of PALMER that's built around this strong foundation is on solid ground.  It's very, very easy to navigate the basic plot machinations on display and predict exactly where everything is heading (i.e. - Palmer will erupt into violence against those that spur him and Sam; the child custody court hearing; the heated confrontations with the returning absentee mother...etc.), not to mention that the romantic subplot between Palmer and Sam's teacher in Maggie hits many perfunctory notes (granted, Timberlake and Wainwright display nice, unforced chemistry on screen).  Then there's also the way that PALMER wants to throw in some last minute commentary about the horribly flawed nature of foster care and the legal system's core definition of what constitutes being a "caregiver" or "parent" that feels like it's a hasty afterthought.  And, yup, PALMER has one of those ultra tidy endings that perhaps strains credulity a bit too much for its own good (the lightning quick, radical change of heart of one particular character is hard to swallow).  Despite some of its creative missteps, PALMER is far more ambitious with the ideas it throws into its genre mixing bowl, especially when it comes to one man coming to grips with his own toxic masculinity and learning to love a child that doesn't fit into a neat and tidy gender role.  This film is a heart tugger, no question, and it's achingly predictable, but the redemptive journey that these characters take in discovering what constitutes real love and mutual need is earnestly told and worth a recommended watch. 

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