Premise: An ex-convict strikes up a friendship with a boy from a troubled home.
Many elements of AppleTV+’s Palmer will probably seem familiar to many of its viewers, but the film still does offer some redeeming qualities. Fortunately, director Fisher Stevens imbues the film with enough heart, and fills the cast with capable actors from top to bottom, to get past any glaring issues. Stevens, primarily a documentarian behind the lens, makes the film feel like a real place, populated with real people, rather than mouthpieces trying to get an agenda across. Too often we take for granted that aspect of movie-making, and here it’s one more feather in Palmer‘s cap.
The film opens as Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is released from a 12-year prison sentence, where he goes back to his Louisiana hometown to live with his grandmother (June Squibb). Returning home to a small town after a lengthy prison sentence already brings with it plenty of opportunities for dramatic tension: regret over time lost, fractured relationships, the judgement of the community at large, the difficulties of re-adjusting to normal life, and the possibility of impending danger, just to name a few. Stevens, with a screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero, explores all of these options without feeling melodramatic.
Unfortunately, this is where the subtlety takes a back seat to the story proper. Palmer’s grandmother plays caretaker to her eight-year-old neighbor Sam (Ryder Allen), an effeminate young boy who loves nothing more than princesses and tea parties. After Sam’s drug-addicted mother (Juno Temple) disappears and Palmer’s grandmother dies, the two form an unlikely bond as they help each other adjust to their new realities. Chances are that you’ve seen some version of this story before, which hampers the more dramatic moments a bit. There’s the bar fight scene after Sam is beaten up; the courtroom drama after Child Protective Services gets involved; the conversation where Palmer attempts to get Sam to like what boys like, et cetera. Thankfully, Stevens tones these scenes down to give way to more quiet, affecting moments. The recipe may be recycled, but the approach feels fresh.
Timberlake, granted a reprieve from the demanding world of Trolls, stars in the titular role, and the result may be his best performance to date. It’s a risky casting decision to place a charismatic, good-looking actor like Timberlake in such a gritty, dressed-down role. Timberlake trades his winning smile that worked so well for him in films like The Social Network for internalized emotions and realistic character depths. It also helps that Timberlake is surrounded by a dynamic cast and can make even the sappiest moments hit hard. Of course, there’s the romantic subplot between Palmer and Sam’s teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). Wainwright gives Maggie the requisite warmth that the role needs, and Guerriero writes the character with enough depth to feel more than a tossed-off stepping stone. Ryder Allen, in his first on-screen role, has tangible chemistry with Timberlake; their scenes would surely lack any emotional weight. His character may not be developed as nicely as I would’ve liked, but he nails the dramatic moments when necessary.
Palmer feels like the type of film that, if it were released by a traditional studio, it could be seen on heavy rotation on basic cable. That may sound like a harsh slam against the film but, compared with the offerings that are churned out by other streaming services every week, the film has some staying power. As I’ve said previously, Apple seems to be very selective when producing films for its streaming service. Palmer may not garner as much buzz as Boys State or Wolfwalkers, or even Greyhound, but it’s easy to see why producers were attracted to the film.
Palmer is now streaming on Apple TV+.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.