‘Palmer’ Review: Justin Timberlake Plays Foster Father to a Gender-Nonconforming Kid

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Peter Debruge
·6 min read
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In “Palmer,” Justin Timberlake taps into his roots, headlining the inverse of last year’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” in which a Southern boy who went off to Yale looked back on his origins to explain the red-state attitudes that look so alien to conservatives. Here, Timberlake delivers a beer-chugging, pickup-driving, fight-picking portrait of what he might have become had he not left Tennessee at 12 to appear on “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club.” Not him, per se, but picture a talent who never got the chance to broaden his horizons. He might turn out like the leathery loner Timberlake portrays in this inspirational feature.

The singer, songwriter, producer and sometime actor doesn’t make movies very often, so when he does, there’s usually a good reason. In the case of this feel-good unconventional-family drama from actor-turned-filmmaker Fisher Stevens (“Stand Up Guys”), it was almost certainly the themes of redemption and acceptance that moved him, and gosh darn if “Palmer” won’t have the same effect on that part of the country hesitant to embrace liberal message movies.

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Timberlake’s character, Eric Palmer, knows what it’s like to be seen as different. Back in high school, he was the star quarterback everybody treated as special. A year into college, Palmer made a series of bad decisions that got him sent away to prison (the movie opts to keep the circumstances of his crime under wraps for a spell). Twelve years later, he’s back in small-town Sylvain, living with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb) and trying to find a job. But no one looks at an ex-con the same way they saw him before he was incarcerated, not even his old friends.

Mind you, “Palmer” isn’t the story of how a community treats — or mistreats — a criminal when he returns to town looking for a second chance. That’s part of it, but Cheryl Guerriero’s Black List script is really about how residents of a conservative, predominantly Christian town react to a 7-year-old boy named Sam (Ryder Allen) who wears girls’ clothes, plays with dolls and loves nothing in the world more than a TV show called “Sky Princesses.”

Sam and his hot-mess mom, Shelly (Juno Temple), are living in a trailer adjacent to Vivian’s home when Palmer crashes on her couch, and though the macho ex-con seems put off by the effeminate tyke at first, he eventually becomes the kid’s fiercest champion. (This is after the scene where Timberlake picks up Temple’s character in a bar, takes her home and flashes his SexyBack for those expecting a bit of skin with their Apple TV Plus subscription.)

When Vivian dies and Shelly disappears, the only thing standing between Sam and child protective services is a macho ex-con with some pretty mainstream ideas about how a young man ought to act. “You know you’re a boy, right?” Palmer asks, thinking it might help the kid to attend a football game. There in the bleachers, Palmer’s adult friends (the same bad influences who encouraged his crime all those years before) pick on Sam, who shows more interest in the Honey Belle cheerleaders than he does in the sport.

That’s roughly the point where Palmer stops trying to socialize the boy and starts to accept Sam on his own terms, which is a pretty remarkable development the film treats as no big deal. Stevens (who has expert instincts in his documentary work) falls short of making this scenario entirely convincing. Take out a few “gritty” details that account for the film’s R rating, and “Palmer” is formulaic enough to pass for a faith-based movie.

Academia has provided all sorts of tools to analyze the dynamics on display here — terms like “gender-nonconforming,” “heteronormative conditioning” and “internalized homophobia” — but laypeople often bristle at such big words. Stevens clearly feels that the emotional route is more powerful than the intellectual one, so the helmer presents Palmer with a series of situations where he has to stick up for Sam: against school bullies, adult abusers and eventually, a legal system that won’t allow an ex-con to raise someone else’s child.

That last rule actually seems eminently reasonable, although it’s inconvenient for a stacked-deck screenplay where the audience has seen enough to vouch for Palmer’s dependability. But if the movie had opened with — or even shown — the brutal crime for which he served time, would we be so ready to sign Sam over to this foster dad? Even after Shelly comes home looking like something out of “The Night of the Living Dead,” the film’s a little too cavalier in its conviction that Palmer deserves custody, just because Sam likes the guy.

And what’s not to like? This is Justin Timberlake we’re talking about. It’s going to take more than an unkempt beard and sad-puppy circles under his eyes to erase the actor’s inherent appeal. Even Sam’s elementary school teacher, Miss Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), has the hots for him. She’s actually a pretty great character — one of the many in this movie who demonstrate that some people are fundamentally caring and good — although the film probably would have been stronger without the romantic subplot between the two. It raises questions about each one’s motives.

Ultimately, there’s not a lot that will surprise audiences about “Palmer,” which feels almost like a vanity project for Timberlake. He’s given electrifying (supporting) performances before, most notably in 2006’s “Alpha Dog,” which offered a glimpse of what this character might have been like a dozen years ago. But he’s somehow less compelling as a leading man, especially in a performance that denies the star his natural charisma. The movie sees him as a saint, albeit a flawed one, leaving too many dimensions of his personality unexplored.

The discovery here is young Ryder Allen, who plays Sam with a sweet sort of authenticity. Like Palmer, some audiences may have trouble embracing the exaggeratedly girly way Stevens asks him to behave at first. But witnessing such conviction in a child — even more that seeing various adults come around to accepting him — is what makes “Palmer” so powerful. Whether the result of enlightenment or simple naiveté, each successive generation’s openness to new ways of being helps to unlearn the ways in which we’ve been indoctrinated.

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