Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has just been released from prison and is trying to rebuild his life. He moves in with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) in Louisiana, gets a job as a school janitor and tries his best to ignore the judgements of everyone who remembers his troubled past. Soon after, Palmer meets Sam (Ryder Allen), who lives in the trailer behind Vivian’s home. Sam’s Mom Shelley (Juno Temple) tends to disappear on lengthy benders – leaving Sam with no one to turn to but Vivian.
No need to sugar coat it; you probably can predict exactly what direction Palmer heads in after reading that Synopsis. There is nothing too surprising here despite a few swerves. Oscar-winning Actor/Director/Documentarian Fisher Stevens knows what kind of movie he is making, and never pretends otherwise. The story is nice and often breezy, and the heart tugging moments do their job. It looks good, has a few laughs and precious few glimpses of darkness. It is slightly more adult than it initially seems, but is otherwise exactly what you expect it to be.
The problem with Palmer lies in how dated it feels. If this movie were made a few decades ago, this would have been atypical Oscar bait and whoever was playing Palmer would be tipped for Best Actor. In 2021, it has a “seen it, done it” feel that makes its predictable narrative feel stale and worn (not to mention the laughable implausibility of certain scenes in the third act). Palmer’s backstory is deliberately enigmatic to a fault, and the narrative gaps it produces could have only enriched and improved the storyline if they were not excised from the Film. The bullying angle the Film takes is effective enough, but it does a disservice to Allen’s wonderful performance by only skimming the surface of his character’s gender identity. It is a bit crass to write it off as a gimmick, though it begs the question of why his character was written like this if his actions are barely explored and only seem to benefit Palmer’s character development.
While Allen is the showstopper and the heart and soul of the Film, the Cast around him still do pretty well for themselves. The character work put in by Squibb and Alisha Wainwright (playing Sam’s teacher) is well done. Temple is solid, although this is the kind of role she is known for and has practically perfected for years. Dean Winters shows up briefly, mostly in passing and is barely recognizable. Surprising as it is to say, I was particularly impressed by Timberlake. He really dives into the character of Palmer, playing him with a quiet, contemplative sadness that never dissipates. There is something genuine in the way he acts here, something that has been missing from every part he has taken since his terrific turn in The Social Network. Palmer knows he messed up, and knows he needs to atone for his mistakes. It is a hardened performance that I wish Timberlake was able to explore even better, and suggests an even greater performance is just waiting to get unlocked.
Palmer is exactly what you expect it to be – and that is perfectly acceptable for what kind of movie it is. While it could have been greater if certain elements and storylines were better developed, it looks good and the performances are all enjoyable. Timberlake has never been better and the young Allen is a delight. I look forward to what they turn up in next.
PALMER streams on Apple TV+ on Friday, January 29, 2021.