There’s a kitchen-sink full of Serious Drama Cliches in the new Justin Timberlake film “Palmer,” about a high school football star turned convict who must help the young gender fluid boy with the addict mom next door while also trying to regain his footing in his small Louisiana hometown. It’d be an insult to real Oscar-bait to even call this Oscar-bait. And yet, compelling performances make “Palmer” watchable and fairly affecting despite the fact that we’ve seen this kind of thing so many times before.
Timberlake plays Eddie Palmer, who has just been released from prison after 12 years and is going to live with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) in his old hometown. He’s got the ex-con beard and hoodie and thousand-yard squint and is a bit of a mystery, although that might be giving him a little too much credit. The script takes its time teasing out what exactly landed him behind bars.
But he’s essentially keeping his head down and trying to reenter society when he gets an added complication: The heroin addict living in the trailer next door (played by Juno Temple, who somewhere along the way started getting typecast in “white trash” roles) takes off with her abusive boyfriend and leaves her 7-year-old son Sam (Ryder Allen) without any care.
Sam is used to the unconventional routine and packs up to stay with Vivian, who is happy to care for him for however long his mom stays away. But Vivian is not long for this movie and pretty soon it’s just Palmer who is left and he isn’t exactly looking to be a surrogate parent to anyone. Sam is also a bit of a target in this small Southern town. He is essentially gender non-conforming. He likes makeup and tea parties and animated fairy princess shows and gets picked on by the boys at school for it.
Palmer’s transition from subtle intolerance to full acceptance of Sam’s person is very quick, which is a little convenient for the story and doesn’t do anything to reveal who Palmer is, was or is becoming. The script even has the audacity to pretend like Palmer is actually going to turn Sam over to the system at one point. Not only would the movie have no where to go, but it would also take some kind of monster to abandon Sam, who is an angel of a child, polite, funny, curious, self-sufficient and undisturbed by any judgments. When Palmer tries to point out that there aren’t any boys in the fairy princess show, Sam comes back with something like “I’ll be the first.” Does it sound more like an adult screenwriter (Cheryl Guerriero wrote the script) than an innocent child? Yes. But Allen sells it. And he and Timberlake are pretty darn cute together, which goes a long way. There’s also a romance side plot between Palmer and Sam’s teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright).
“Palmer” is directed straightforwardly by Fisher Stevens, who in addition to his acting career has had successes directing documentaries over the years. It’s hard to say why something like this, invented whole cloth and out of a bundle of familiar tropes, is more effective than something like “Hillbilly Elegy,” which was an actual true story, but here we are. And even so, you never forget that you’re watching a movie.
Still it’s nice to be reminded that Timberlake has some acting chops, although it’s a far cry from his “Social Network” breakthrough.
“Palmer,” an Apple TV+ release available Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some sexual content/nudity and brief violence.” Running time: 110 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press