May 8, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Palmer’ review: Justin Timberlake leads an inspirational drama

The opening of “Palmer” feels very familiar, because this is the kind of setup we’ve seen many times before.

The camera skims over the water before picking up star Justin Timberlake’s face, looking a bit rough and haggard, pensively staring out the window of a bus that drops him off at a modest home, knapsack in hand. It’s just this side of a Folgers ad, but stick with it. Within five minutes, we know that Eddie Palmer (Timberlake) is a former football star just out of prison, early. Within 25 minutes, he’s become the primary caretaker of a precocious young neighbor boy, Sam (Ryder Allen), who prefers princesses, tea parties and makeovers to “typical” boy stuff.

This cute kid/gruff man odd-couple dynamic is a story we’ve seen before, but the sentimental tropes are coupled with such good intentions about the importance of tolerance that one could feel like a jerk for even daring to let the slightest bit of cynicism creep in. It plays out in expected ways, yes, but director Fisher Stevens, working with a script by Cheryl Guerriero, doesn’t belabor any point. Stevens keeps the story moving forward, into a deeper, darker exploration of parenting, abuse, child welfare and hard-fought redemption in the eyes of the law.

Showman Timberlake is uncharacteristically reserved as Palmer, returning to life in his small Louisiana town and struggling to learn who he might become if he’s able to shed some bad habits and old friends. Palmer‘s grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) cares for Sam as if the boy’s her own whenever his mother, the troubled addict Shelly (Juno Temple), runs off. When Vivian’s no longer in the picture, Palmer takes Sam under his wing, two square pegs who don’t fit the round holes cut for them by the social strictures of this small town.

Sam is much more comfortable being an unabashed square peg than former high school quarterback Palmer, who strains against the labels that have been placed on him: local hero turned local outlaw. Sam doesn’t let anything get in the way of his enjoyment of fairy princesses, not even homophobic bullying or the adults who cajole him to conform. Though Palmer halfheartedly tries to instruct Sam in the dos and don’ts of heteronormative boyhood, Sam’s spirit is too strong. He ultimately becomes a source of inspiration for Palmer to keep moving forward and resist returning to his old ways. Sam’s individuality lets Palmer be brave enough to evolve into the person he wants to be.

Stevens’ direction is assured and sturdy, unshowy but with a few stylistic flourishes. This is a showcase for Timberlake to take on a more dramatic leading role, but the supporting cast works wonders, including Allen in a role that requires much more than just being a cute kid. Stevens has two powerful secret weapons in Temple and Squibb. Both women make any film they’re in better, and while Temple always goes big, and does here, there’s never an ounce of dishonesty in her performances.

The trouble with “Palmer” is the question of who this film is for. With an adorable 9-year-old co-lead and an inspirational story about creative gender expression, it feels like a film that should be family-friendly — but it’s not. “Palmer” is rated R, thanks to a couple of racy sex scenes and a few bouts of fisticuffs, as well as a frank depiction of drug abuse and child neglect. But that’s real life. The frankness with which “Palmer” addresses the very adult challenges that kids sometimes face is refreshing, not to mention the ways that kids can influence adults about living life authentically, before the undue influence of strict social norms takes hold.

‘Palmer’

Rated: R, for language, some sexual content/nudity and brief violence

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: Available on Apple TV+