From the moment a bus with a broken headlight drops ex-convict Eddie Palmer off in his small Louisiana hometown, it’s clear his road to redemption won’t be easy — even if he does still look like Justin Timberlake. As the former golden boy title character in director Fisher Stevens’ moving drama Palmer (★★★☆☆), the pop star appears almost as haggard as that beat-down bus.
Released early, after serving 12 years of a 17-year sentence (so you know he did something bad), Palmer might be out of prison, but he’s not yet free. He’s on parole, and the threat of being reincarcerated hangs like a noose around his neck, at times tightening, waiting for the hand, maybe his own, that’ll yank him all the way back to prison. More than that, we can see in Eddie’s eyes and detect in his quiet, sullen manner, that prison still lingers in his mind. Taking a room in the home of his loving grandma, Vivian (a warm and feisty June Squibb), Palmer gets a job as a school janitor, and keeps whatever pain or horrors he experienced inside the joint to himself.
In fact, Palmer doesn’t talk much at all, allowing Timberlake to flex his talents for emoting volumes with nary a word. Even in motion, he’s contained, cautious, opening up a touch only when he’s downing beers with old buds, or flirting with a girl in a bar. For most of the film’s first half, the talking is largely left to Vivian, a cantankerous Christian who expects Palmer to join her at church every Sunday, and to Sam, the delightful but troubled 8-year old who lives with his ne’er-do-well mom in a rental trailer in Vivian’s yard.
Sam, both as written and as portrayed by newcomer Ryder Allen, adds a spark of originality to this solid though formulaic redemption tale — just as he adds a much-needed spark of joy to the lives of Palmer and Vivian. Sam’s joy and resilience shine through despite the fact he’s saddled with a terribly irresponsible mom (Juno Temple, landing just this side of overdoing it), and is bullied relentlessly, including at church, for being himself.
Sam likes dolls and princesses, and trying on makeup and dresses, and, in stark contrast to Palmer, seems completely comfortable in his own skin. Screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero, who is queer, invests the character with depth that is beautifully rendered by Allen’s layered, liberated performance.
It would seem impossible to not like Sam, although plenty of small-minded people in this town treat him awfully because he “acts like a girl.” Before Palmer can help it, his urge to protect the kid kicks in, and they’re off to becoming friends. Sam’s so purely a kid that he’s barely aware he needs protection in this cruel world. Palmer sees that as an innocence worth protecting, and it is. Through Stevens’ sensitive direction, Palmer overcomes a steep hurdle of predictability to weave a just-released-from-prison story where tolerance and acceptance turn out to be the keys to freedom.
Palmer is available for streaming on AppleTV+. Visit www.appletv.com.
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