At this point, I don’t watch Justin Timberlake in a movie any more and think “There’s that singer who also acts.” He’s become such a reliable, versatile actor that I just see the character he’s playing without any qualifiers. And because he has become such a worthy onscreen presence, he’s gotten to the point where he can sometimes elevate an average film and make it a bit better. Case in point: the new film Palmer, from director Fisher Stevens, who has delivered a string of solid documentaries in recent years but hasn’t helmed a feature since 2012’s abysmal Stand Up Guys.
Timberlake plays the title character, whom we meet after he’s completed a 12-year stint in prison. He moves back in with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), the woman who raised him after his mother abandoned him and his father died when he was still fairly young. In an effort to piece his life back together, he lands a job as a janitor at a local school and attempts to live a quiet, somewhat withdrawn life. But soon after he arrives back in town (where he was once the star quarterback for his high school football team), he meets a young kid named Sam (Ryder Allen), who lives with his mother, Shelly (June Temple), in a trailer on Vivian’s property. Because Shelly is a drug addict and has a tendency to disappear for days or even weeks on end, Sam frequently comes to Vivian’s to stay while his mom is gone.
Palmer doesn’t think much of it at first, but when Vivian unexpectedly dies, he is suddenly stuck with this kid, having no idea what to do with him, especially since Sam is a bit of an outcast in this redneck community, since his favorite TV show is about fairy princesses, he likes to dress in clothes that are considered feminine by most, and he loves throwing tea parties. The screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero never explicitly identifies Sam as gay or anything else in the LGBTQ+ rainbow, but being different than the norm in this very vanilla town not only makes him stand out, it also makes him a target.
Wisely, the film makes certain that the one person who isn’t confused about what Sam is exactly is Sam. He’s confident, outgoing, and not in the least bit embarrassed or shy about who he is, and that’s refreshing to see in a film like this. That being said, I wish there had been even a fleeting moment where Sam got to talk about himself beyond his TV likes and dislikes; I’m guessing for a kid with such a sense of self worth, he might have a thing or two to say about who he is clearly so proud to be.
Thankfully, Palmer isn’t a movie about this unusual kid bringing out the best in our protagonist by opening up his eyes to the world’s potentials (although that does happen to some degree). Instead, Palmer is forced to take a hard look at his own prejudices and figure out what makes him think Sam needs to change at all. He also learns what it means to be protective of something he cares about without getting violent, which is the issue that landed him in prison in the first place.
Whatever lessons may be learned during the course of Palmer, the film avoids feeling preachy or too heavy with messages. We get a sense that the characters haven’t so much changed during the course of the story as they have been slightly refined without altering their fundamental core. Timberlake gives a subdued, low-key performance, punctuated by a couple outbursts that genuinely made me jump because they were so unexpected. Any flaws in the movie come from the writing, although Temple’s tweaked-out addict mom character practically explodes off the page at times, and she ends up feeling like she’s performing in a completely different film. Still, Palmer has its heart in the right place, even if it lands with a thud.
The film begins streaming January 29 on Apple TV+.
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