Apple TV+ makes an awards bid with the well-meaning Palmer, a drama of recovery, change and tolerance. It might not set the world on fire, but the film proves uniquely difficult to resist.
Justin Timberlake is in fine form as a hardened convict who grows soft and open to love thanks to the charms of a little boy. His accent might not last the whole movie, but his commitment to the part is nevertheless most endearing.
Eddie Palmer (played by Timberlake) has just gotten out of jail for armed robbery and almost beating his intended mark to death when caught. His first stop is his grandmother Vivian’s (June Squibb) house in rural Louisiana, and then to find a job to keep his parole officer off his back. He just barely qualifies to work as a janitor at the local elementary school, where he notices a familiar face.
Sam (Ryder Allen) is the son of the fast-living Shelly (Juno Temple), who rents out Vivian’s yard for her trailer, so they’re Palmer’s neighbors and frequently more than that. Palmer beds Shelly his first night back in town, and Vivian drives Sam to church every Sunday and lets him stay whenever Shelly’s on a bender or away with a man, which is frequently.
Forces conspire to ensure that Palmer is the only adult left to look after Sam. And though he initially resents the assignment, eventually he grows to love the boy, who plays fairy dress-up and wears red cowboy boots.
And if you can’t recall the singer, can you still recall the tune?
Palmer was directed by Fisher Stevens, who most people probably know better as an actor in movies like Short Circuit and Hackers. He started directing in the early 2000s. Though his movies are frequently quite good (see his documentary Bright Lights about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher if you can, it’s excellent) his reputation as a director has yet to eclipse his recognition for acting.
That may be because he’s got a light touch behind the camera or because his movies do little more than what they promise. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. There are worse ambitions as a filmmaker. But something like Palmer is deliberately only so ambitious. It paints the Louisiana backwater where it’s set as a place of gently mythic Americana, neither too upsetting in its rank poverty nor too wholesome in its football games and bowling alleys. It’s right in the middle, just like the film’s dramatic interests.
Dry your eyes
The film frequently feels like it might run out of steam after pointing out the realistic shortsightedness and sometimes outright bigotry of the people in town as they respond to Sam, but it recovers nicely.
Sam exists somewhere outside the expected spectrum of masculinity, but the film reasonably declines to state what that means because, well, he’s a child, and it shouldn’t matter. But the resolutions are satisfying, even if they feel convenient. Palmer wants us to believe change is possible even in a place like this, and it could be, but it’s also possible to not buy the movie and still respond to it.
Sam was raised by the women in town, both his wild-thing mom and the churchgoing likes of Vivian. He dresses like they were his role models, which causes not just the other boys in his class but the close-minded men in his orbit to make fun of him and in some cases treat him violently. Palmer doesn’t really understand any of this when he enters the boy’s life. However, he recognizes Sam’s unfailing goodness as a little kid and wants to help him, which means questioning his own prejudices to become a better caregiver.
Palmer embraces social change
This is not only a kind of quiet plea for men everywhere to take stock of what really matters to them as gender roles and norms evolve. It’s also an attempt to update the small-town conventions of movies like this about troubled ex-cons and their everyday triggers to include new mile markers for decency.
Going back to standard bearers for the ex-con drama, in movies like Straight Time (1978) or Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965) the things an ex-con is meant to pick up to stay out of jail starts hard and gets even more complicated as the times change. Rents go up, jobs pay less, attitudes change.
Palmer adds a new wrinkle to the template in asking that our recently freed hero not just become a father figure to an orphaned boy. He also must approach the boy without the judgment he learned from years as an athlete and then in prison. It takes him most of the second act, but he does it. And if he can, anyone can. That’s the logic here. It’s maybe a little simplified for drama’s sake but it remains compelling.
Sing it like you know he’d want it, like we sang it once before
Palmer employs the kind of soft focus and handheld camera of an independent drama, but this is a tear-jerker of the highest order. Stevens and company want you to cry, and they won’t quit till you do. Timberlake seems deeply connected to the material, and never once betrays that he’s one of the most beloved men in pop culture. You do believe he’d go down to the local bar and start some trouble.
Temple, who I was heartened to see trying new things in hit Apple TV+ comedy Ted Lasso, is back to her usual stock in trade: town hussy. Squibb and Wainwright both offer great value in the wings, but the whole show here is Ryder Allen.
Everything the kid does is gold. From his walk to the way he climbs playground equipment, this is just a phenomenally pitched performance from a child actor who looks like he just learned how to read. His delivery of lines like “she’s a bossy little thing,” will likely stay with you for months. If the movie works, it’s because it’s got one of the greatest and most warm and lovable performances from a child actor a movie could hope to have.
The film is overly tidy in its depiction of changing times and morality. However, there’s nothing wrong with that when your message is nice. The film stays reasonably compelling for its two-hour length.
Palmer on Apple TV+
Palmer comes to Apple TV+ on January 29.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.