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 JerryDirected by Fisher Stevens / Written by Cheryl Guerriero
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
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
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.