It’s hard to know where to place a movie like Palmer. On one hand, its grim portrayal of small-town life and syrupy representation of a young genderqueer child feel hackneyed. On the other, its rural, more conservative setting and characters could potentially speak to viewers who actually need to hear the film’s message of kindness and inclusion. Palmer may not be great art, but one could argue that significant personal breakthroughs have been accomplished with less.
Our hero, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake), has just been released from prison after a 12-year stint for attempted murder. He moves in with his grandma, Vivian (June Squibb) with a resolution to get his life back in order. Palmer immediately notices Vivian’s neighbors, Shelly (Juno Temple), a drug-addicted single mom, and her elementary-aged son Sam (Ryder Allen)–a little boy who prefers wearing dresses and playing with dolls to picking up a football.
Shelly disappears (something we’re told she does fairly often), leaving Sam in the care of Vivian and the reluctant Palmer. As Palmer and Sam’s bond grows, Palmer’s desire to protect the kid from anyone who would hurt him–including Shelly–puts his tenuous criminal rehabilitation at risk. Meanwhile, Palmer is also coming to terms with the people and life choices that put him behind bars in college, and establishing new relationships that help him move forward, including a romantic one with Sam’s teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright).
Timberlake and Allen have good chemistry as an unlikely surrogate family. Given Sam’s circumstances, the character edges toward Pollyanna territory; he is (at times) an irritatingly irrepressible kid. Allen’s performance is just natural enough, however, that we (like Palmer) are inclined to want to protect Sam, and preserve his innocence at all costs. Timberlake, for his part, is believable as a small-town guy trying to rehabilitate his image in a place where second chances are tough to come by. It’s also endearing to see him adapt his views about Sam’s identity. June Squibb gets too little time on screen as Vivian, but makes good use of it, building a realistically selfless and kind character.
The film is ill-served, however, by a predictable plot and a cliched cast of supporting characters. Sam’s mom, Shelly, is a screaming caricature of a drug addict who wouldn’t be out of place alongside Amy Adams’ performance in Hillbilly Elegy. Palmer’s former friends are, to a man, unhelpful, violent and bigoted. Sam’s teacher Maggie is saintly, smart and completely out-of-place in her surroundings–not to mention a less-than-likely romantic interest for Timberlake’s character.
It’s possible that Palmer could reach some viewership pockets of rural America who are drawn to familiar settings and characters, and that Palmer’s loving and affirming relationship with Sam might be inspirational enough to open some hearts and minds. It’s certainly helpful that the film doesn’t get preachy about its LGBTQ+ messaging, but rather frames it in a way that makes sense for these characters. It’s not a cynical film, which is important, given the subject matter. However, it’s not a terribly creative one either.
“Palmer” premieres Friday on Apple TV+.