Synopsis: After 12 years in prison, a former high school football star returns home to put his life back together—and forms an unlikely bond with an outcast boy from a troubled home.
Stars: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Dean Winters, Wynn Everett
Director: Fisher Stevens
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: When it comes to making the transition from music to movies, looking over the history of Hollywood in the last half century it’s clear that the women have far outshone the men when it comes to getting accolades for their performances. Stars like Bette Midler, Cher, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga have all starred in critically acclaimed feature films and four of these ladies have even netted multiple Oscar nominations to prove it wasn’t a fluke. The men haven’t had it quite as easy and audiences just are not nearly as accepting of the gentlemen pop stars dropping their well-honed images to take on polarizing parts. A number of attempts in recent years (curiously mostly country stars) have simply tried to stick in their comfort zone, which is almost worse because they’ve painted themselves in a safe corner with no movement allowed.
If there’s an exception to this rule it has to be Justin Timberlake but up until now, the one-time *NSYNC star that got his start on the Mickey Mouse Club alongside former flame Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, has only found mediocre returns on even his best performances. While he’s chosen good filmmakers to work with and been cast in prestige pictures, his roles haven’t quite fit him, or he hasn’t taken them to the level he could have. Something has been out of alignment in nearly every feature he’s been a part of, like some diabolical voodoo curse by one of the Backstreet Boys to keep him from having it all. I just looked over his list of credits on IMDb and it’s true, Timberlake consistently has either a good performance in a bad movie or a so-so showing in a good feature.
Apparently, whatever dark cloud was hanging over Timberlake has lifted because he’s venturing into the acting arena again with Palmer, a new film streaming on Apple TV+ starting January 29th. Not only is the Fisher Stevens-directed film surprisingly excellent with a sweet heart but it hands Timberlake his best role to date. Perhaps it’s because the singer-actor had recently become a father (and just became one for a second time) or maybe it was just finally the right part at the right time, but it showcases Timberlake at his most open and vulnerable, demonstrating great range without ever overselling the delicate nuances of drama found in Cheryl Guerriero’s sought-after script. It’s well known that Guerriero’s screenplay for Palmer was included on the 2016 Black List as one of the best un-produced scripts in Hollywood. Nowadays, enough bad movies have been made of those supposedly excellent scripts but back then, that still meant something, and the Palmer script was obviously one of the good eggs in the Black List basket. Guerriero’s voice is strong and comes through demonstrating a natural ear for realistic dialogue that could be maudlin and hokey to some outside of the township setting the film takes place in but rings right in the ear of the viewer all the same.
Returning to his small Louisiana hometown to live with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb, Palm Springs) who raised him, Eddie Palmer (Timberlake, Wonder Wheel) is seen as a pariah by the townspeople thanks to his 12-year prison sentence for aggravated burglary. While the question of his committing the crime on his own is a bit up in the air throughout the film (it’s suggested he took the rap for his more affluent friends), there’s little question he likely was headed in that direction anyway. A one-time popular football player that apparently had a bit of an arrogant streak, his friends have stayed local and may have grown up in age but not in overall maturity. They’re all in the middle of their lives with wives and children while Eddie hasn’t even had the chance to begin. Tough love Vivian makes Eddie follow rules while living in her house and that includes going to church and helping her with tasks, including helping her care for Sam (Ryder Allen), the young boy living in a camper with his addict mom in the vacant lot next to Vivian’s house. When Sam’s mom Shelly (Juno Temple, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) splits for a bender, she abandons her son with Vivian, often for weeks at a time.
It’s during one of these extended absences that life changes for Eddie and he really gets to know Sam better, noticing how different he is from the other boys. Preferring more feminine looks to wear to school and often adorned with barrettes in his mop of hair, Sam is the definition of young confidence. As is usually the case, instead of recognizing this beam of good-natured sunshine for the joy it is, those those can’t accept someone for being “other” feel threatened by his very existence. Sam’s sensitive but not impractical and he’s lucky to have support from Vivian, Shelly, and his teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright) who all allow him to be whatever he chooses to be. So he watches television shows about fairy princesses instead of Transformers and dreams of one day being able to join their ranks. Eddie, on the other hand, isn’t as easily swayed and observes how Sam is treated in class by poorly raised bullies when he finds a job working as a janitor for the local elementary school.
The script developments in the latter half of Palmer aren’t all together unexpected but they are handled in the form of such refreshingly direct conversations that even if the scenes begin predictable, they don’t end that way. At some point, someone is going to confront the elephant in the room and not let the issue sit until there is resolution through other means. In so many movies the plot hinges on topics that could be discussed and dealt with were it not for the general unwillingness of people to have these tough exchanges. Perhaps Guerriero has drawn on some of her own life lessons but she seems to be of the “let’s deal with it and move on” school of living and it creates an electricity around the characters in Palmer that can’t help but make them spring to life. It does result in some hard to watch scenes of neglect and abuse so while Stevens doesn’t shy away from showing these tough moments he handles them with a gentle hand knowing there is a kind of light around the corner for most of the characters.
I find it so fascinating that Timberlake was drawn to this script and this character in particular. It’s so far afield from what he’s done in the past and I think its deeper themes will go a long way in opening further dialogue for families that watch the movie together. There’s little of Timberlake the actor to be found here, he blends into the character seamlessly and you don’t see the Super Bowl performer or teen heartthrob all grown up. His natural chemistry creates a great connection between himself and Allen and the two form a believable bond as a quasi-father-son combo. He’s never had a son, the other has never had a father and both conveniently and comfortably fill that blank space in ways that satisfy more than they could have imagined. I also really appreciated Wainwright’s empowered character, a take-charge teacher that advocates for her students and checks up on them when she feels something isn’t right. She gets a little broad at times, but Temple has an absolute killer scene near the end that I swear if Apple TV+ sent out a screening link to every Oscar voter on 1/29 she’d wind up a nominee this year.
This one caught me by total surprise. I didn’t expect to find as much value in Palmer as I did and wouldn’t have guessed it would have the kind of lasting impression it has had on me since I saw it. Some of the performances, Timberlake, Temple, Allen, have been on my mind quite a lot and probably enough so that I’ll watch it again. Here’s hoping Timberlake continues to find scripts like this that allow him to uncover characters like Eddie Palmer. Flawed but redeemable, he’s a man that just wants to start over again. His opportunity doesn’t come in the exact package he would have guessed, but once he stops and looks at the value instead of the debt it could bring his world-view changes. It’s a good lesson for us all. Especially now.