I was raised in the south, in the middle to lower class though much closer to the lower than the middle with strong religious views imbued from my mother’s side and a versatile education environment that schooled me on cultures and classes outside my own. I bring this up not to highlight necessarily the point of view from which this review will be written, but more to say that movies became an outlet by which I experienced parts of the world I thought I'd never visit. Movies helped me meet different types of people I might have never met otherwise and they helped me gain different and varied perspectives that likely would have never crossed my mind without them. Perspective is the key word here as seeing through someone else’s eyes is important, but so is seeing different situations the world may throw at you as handled by someone you recognize. This brings us to Palmer. While the latest feature from actor/director Fisher Stevens may not seem the kind of revelatory product to change someone’s world view it may have very well done just that for me were I to have seen this film some fifteen to twenty years ago. Palmer doesn’t inherently feel like the groundbreaking sort because it does in fact feel rather familiar, but everyone has to get familiar somehow and needless to say, Palmer isn't a bad way to do so. Stevens' film, as written by Cheryl Guerriero, utilizes its familiarity to affectionately illustrate its well-meaning message and when I use that word I use it intentionally as Guerriero's script never makes mention of any key words or phrases (except for maybe "queer", I guess) specific to the issues the movie deals in, but rather it simply shows us - through action and interactions - that love is easier to come by than hate no matter who you are or where you come from. Purposefully set in the north shore of Louisiana (and primarily shot in Tangipahoa Parish), the premise of Palmer as it deals in a child saving an adult as much as that adult ends up actually having to save the child is as well-worn as the time-loop premise at this point, but the humbling details of how said premise comes to fruition are what consistently push the film toward the kind of acceptance our titular character could only hope for regarding his young counterpart. That said, it's not difficult to see where the movie will end up or even how it will get there, but the one-two punch of Justin Timberlake's solid yet restrained performance along with newcomer Ryder Allen's aura of absolute sweetness make Palmer exactly what it was intended to be: a simple reminder of what really matters in a world where such heart is easily lost, which, feels like a reminder we could all use these days.         

Justin Timberlake stars as the titular Palmer in this redemption story from Fisher Stevens.
Credit: Apple TV+

Timberlake plays Eddie Palmer who was once upon a time a college football star at LSU, but was sent to prison for twelve years with part of the narrative intrigue obviously being around what it was that sent him there. At the beginning of the film, Palmer has just been released and returns home to live with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), who more or less raised him alongside his father after his mom abandoned him. Vivian is God-fearing, but common sense-wielding Louisianian who is as happy her grandson is home as she is keen on him securing a job as soon as possible. Vivian is also adamant Palmer join her at church every week which is where he first meets Sam (Ryder Allen), the young boy who lives in the trailer next door to Vivian and who Vivian cares for and takes to church with her when his drug-addicted mother (Juno Temple) disappears for days or even weeks on end. One wants to believe Temple's Shelly (whom Palmer quickly has a drunken one-night stand with) does in fact love her son, but she clearly has a more than manageable amount of her own issues and addictions she needs to deal with. Naturally, Vivian's house has become something of a safe haven for Sam and while Palmer is initially somewhat irritated by both the seeming attention paid him by his own grandmother as well as by the fact Sam has tendencies of not conforming to his biological gender, things happen abruptly that force this dynamic to evolve. Yes, Sam likes to play with dolls, wear barrettes in his hair, and dress like a princess for Halloween and Palmer - clearly unaccustomed and uncomfortable with these tendencies - questions Sam's awareness that he is in fact a boy. When Vivian unexpectedly passes away in the midst of one of Shelly's extended benders Palmer is left to care for Sam on his own. In a somewhat ironic turn of fate, the only job Palmer is able to secure is that of a school janitor allowing him to not only look after Sam while at the house Vivian had made home for both of them, but throughout the day as well. It is in these daily observations where Palmer sees the treatment Sam endures from bullies - often the spawn of his own idiot high school friends that haven't evolved much either - as well as the kindness lent him by his pretty (and divorced) teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). What ensues is what was referenced earlier in terms of the familiar tropes concerning Sam allowing Palmer a measure of growth and purpose; these changes therefore giving Palmer the strength to rescue Sam from his situation. Stevens executes said archetypes with such humility though, it's impossible to not be endeared to the arc of it all.

Of course, the draw here is Timberlake who has taken some time since his last live-action role and understandably committed his time to music projects and the animated Trolls franchise. While he appeared in a supporting role in 2017's Woody Allen feature Wonder Wheel (also starring Juno Temple) Timberlake has otherwise been absent from the big screen since his 2013 dud, Runner Runner. In many regards, the jury is still out on Timberlake as an actor. He's had some critical wins - most notably in smaller, supporting roles in films like The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis, Alpha Dog, and Black Snake Moan - whereas in films where he's taken the leading role a la Friends With Benefits (though personally, this is one of my favorite comfort movies), In Time, and Trouble with the Curve it would seem each has proven to either be a critical or commercial misfire. Essentially, Timberlake simply hasn't experienced that breakthrough that might allow him to solidify his presence as an actor as much as he's been able to do on the music side of things. Granted, that's a big ask for anyone given Timberlake's musical credentials, but with Palmer it feels like the multi-hyphenate is getting closer than he's ever been before if not completely there yet. His turn as the eponymous character in this latest endeavor is by far the most substantial opportunity he's been given in a leading role capacity and it seems he was aware of as much going in. The character of Palmer is at the heart of almost every scene yet Timberlake knowingly doesn't go for broke under the weight of the movie resting on his shoulders. In fact, he does the opposite by commanding the screen not with all the flash of his music video persona or the charisma baked into his SNL appearances, but rather by remaining stoic and conveying this strong, guarded sense that is conveyed mostly through his silence. Palmer is a very matter-of-fact guy given the presumed nature of his nurturing and these context clues help explain how the character not only landed in prison in the first place, but why he's remained so diligent about starting fresh even if that means starting from the bottom. To a great extent, Timberlake uses only his eyes and their sideways glances in order to get at the heart of what a relationship, new or old, might mean or impress upon him. The heart of Palmer lies in the core relationship between Timberlake and Allen's Sam though, and it is the winning chemistry between the two that heralds the inclusive nature of it all (when it very easily could have been the other way around) and the embracing of those who are different by looking at them for what they bring to the table and not how they detract from it.   

Palmer and Sam (Ryder Allen) form an unlikely friendship after society hangs them both out to dry.
Credit: Apple TV+

Speaking of Sam, this is a kid who is content being who he is. He does what feels natural and is comfortable in his own skin. Sam isn't aware of what others consider odd, but part of Palmer focuses on the painful ways in which he's made aware some people won't accept him for who he is or who he wants to be. Allen, in his debut feature performance (which is pretty crazy given his pension for authenticity), makes you fall in love with Sam immediately. While Timberlake's Palmer is undoubtedly the steadfast anchor, Allen's Sam is the hope beneath the sails and the young actor effortlessly carries that dynamic by delivering a convincingly honest performance in both the comedic as well as the more dramatic moments. Other supporting players like the great June Squibb and TV-regular Alisha Wainwright do well to prop-up the two leads as Squibb is largely a vehicle through which the movie emphasizes the contradicting nature of the environment we've been dropped into where the church serves more as a water cooler than a place of worship whereas Wainwright's Maggie helps to balance the Palmer/Sam equation. Maggie helps guide Palmer to the conclusion of just how critical his presence in Sam's life is and it is through these actions a romance naturally evolves between the two adults who are both seeking a kind of redemption. Sam lends Palmer this sense of purpose, a new level of self-esteem, and in turn, Palmer is able to give Sam a father. Of course, just as all seems fine and dandy the third act rears its ugly head and Guerriero pulls in the melodrama to plot the perfect ribbon that will wrap the story up cleanly. It's a little antithetical, especially given so much of Palmer wears its low budget like a badge of honor; its rough and rural locations echoing the grit of both the setting and the characters, but the formula works because the emotions are so genuine and because the intentions are so well-meaning. The formulaic nature is also made to work because of that aforementioned collision of two worlds that seem unlikely they could ever be cordial with one another. The film never criticizes Palmer or Sam, but instead allows the material to breathe and their actions to make the case for the film as opposed to big, sensational speeches. Nothing here feels forced or artificial despite the hot button issues clearly incorporated into Guerriero's screenplay to relay a specific message. This story of two unlikely people coming together is nothing if not exactly what we need right now and, again, while the beats may feel familiar to some the message should resonate with all. As a story about someone who, through adversity, can come out the other side and be better for it one can only hope such an admirable arc might open the eyes of those unfamiliar with this formula to new and varied perspectives and hell, maybe even a few who've seen this story before as well. .                     

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