Justin Timberlake gives the strongest performance of his acting career in Palmer. He plays an ex-con that bonds with a transgender child after returning to his rural Louisiana home. Palmer has an exceedingly predictable narrative, but is powerfully dramatic and incisive. The film confronts multiple difficult themes with a thoughtful, sensitive approach. Palmer doesn’t offer many twists or turns, but leaves a solid impression. Its message of redemption and understanding is certainly heartfelt.
Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is freed after twelve years in a federal prison. He returns to live with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), in the small Louisiana town of his youth. Vivian rents a trailer on her land to Shelly (Juno Temple), a promiscuous drug addict and ne’er-do-well. Shelly has a young son, Sam (Ryder Allen), who wants to be a princess. Vivian cares for Sam when Shelly disappears with various men on her drug-fueled benders.
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Palmer has difficulty adjusting to life back home. He can’t get a job because of his criminal record. The locals remember him as a football star that threw everything away. Life becomes even more complicated when Palmer finds Sam under his care. Shelly cannot be found. Sam is constantly bullied for acting like a girl. Palmer questions Sam about his choices, then realizes the child is just being himself. Palmer knows what life would be like for the boy in foster care. His efforts to protect Sam stirs up big trouble in their small town.
Justin Timberlake portrays Palmer with nuance and sophistication. The character’s backstory is revealed as he spends time with the boy. Palmer doesn’t understand why Sam is effeminate. But he can clearly see that Shelly is a trainwreck and unfit to care for such a sensitive child. Despite his own sad state of affairs, he recognizes the situation cannot be ignored. Timberlake and Ryder Allen, who plays Sam, have an endearing, palpable chemistry together. Palmer’s character grows as he becomes more responsible for Sam’s well-being. His violent side is also unleashed as Sam is threatened.
Palmer uses key one-dimensional supporting characters effectively. Director Fisher Stevens (The Cove, Before the Flood) spent decades as a noted character actor. His experience is clearly evident in the performance of Juno Temple as Shelly. Her character could easily have been dismissible as a strung-out druggie. Stevens gives Temple the space to flesh out Shelly’s arc beyond the scripted words. The result leads to a confrontation that will lead many to tears. A lesser actress and director would not have been as impactful.
The theme of how to raise a transgender child is central to the story. This is a hot button issue that may color audience viewpoints of the film. Palmer makes its stance known. The film’s outcome is never in any doubt. It can be fairly criticized as formulaic. But its illustration of Sam’s treatment in school and society is sadly accurate. I think that everyone can agree that violence and bullying towards these individuals, especially children, cannot be accepted. Palmer is a production of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Hercules Film Fund, and Rhea Films. It will be available to stream January 29th exclusively on Apple TV+.
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