The atmosphere of the South is all over PALMER
I have enjoyed watching Justin Timerlake’s acting prowess grow. I recall his brilliant performances in both Alpha Dog and The Social Network as stark turning points. He continues taking remarkable steps to tune his acting chops. They say the proof is in the pudding, and it is in his new film Palmer that we see Timberlake graduate another step on his ascent from budding thespian to magnetic powerhouse.
The atmosphere of the South is all over Palmer. As a cinematic backdrop, this region walks a precarious line between earnest truth and stereotypical punchlines. Often the South is more than a setting, but another character. Palmer fills out the southern land bingo card completely. It checks all boxes: football, religion, trailer parks, and the ever-present ambiguously motivated long arm of the law. Substance abuse and antiquated social decorum are sprinkled in Palmer as well. Director Fisher Stevens helms this film, his first feature after a career of producing docs, as sincerely as he can. He takes great care to put the integral relationship between Timberlake’s Eddie Palmer and a young boy named Sam front and center.
A young man comes home to his small Louisiana town after 12 years in prison. He is Eddie Palmer, but his associates just call him… Palmer. This is likely due to his glory days as the high school quarterback, and for a brief stint, as a collegiate athlete at LSU. But more on that later.
He settles back in with his grandmother, the woman who practically raised him. This town and, if you’d ask Palmer himself, his world hasn’t changed too much in his absence. But he is a felon and needs work. He takes up a broom, mop and other tools as the janitor of the local elementary school. Far from the glory days, but at least it's an honest paycheck.
His grandmother occasionally babysits the young boy next door, Sam (Ryder Allen). Sam lives in a trailer with his mother who has poor taste in men and general life decisions. She leaves one morning, ostensibly indefinitely. Soon Palmer finds Sam everywhere he goes, at his house and at his work. Palmer notices that Sam doesn’t live life by the standards of most boys. More broadly, the standards of the town they live in. Sam prefers dresses, make-up, brushing hair and pining to be a princess. Palmer, being raised knowing boys play sports and dresses are only for girls, shakes it off. Not his kid, not his problem.
Suddenly, it is his problem. Having passed away in the night, Palmer’s grandmother bequeathed her “responsibility” in looking after the vulnerable, abandoned Sam right into Palmer’s hands. After not having the heart to turn Sam over to the system, Palmer shoulders the responsibility to take care of this kid that he barely knows and barely relates to. Their bond grows as the months pass. There are several setpieces involving football games, bowling lanes and Halloween parties that sew friendly oats between the pair. Palmer learns to find acceptance and understanding with what is in Sam’s heart. Eventually, dresses and lipstick don’t appear to be bothersome for Palmer. Plenty of conflict is to be seen as the southern stereotype of being a few decades behind the progressive norm breaks through the surface.
According to plot scripture, Sam’s mess of a mother (Juno Temple) returns to pull Sam back into her world of misery and irresponsibility. This is where the narrative relies heavily on formulaic safety. Thankfully, the bulk of the movie is not so predictable. We take the ride with Palmer through his unorthodox rehabilitation as he rises as an empathetic hero.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
I’ll get the supporting cast out of the way first. Most of their performances did not blow me away. The stock villains being the drunk, drug-pushing and disorderly southern brawlers are paint-by-numbers. Palmer befriends and becomes intimate with Sam’s teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). She possesses both a grace and beauty (and unsurprisingly a cooler head) that grounds and guides Palmer. Juno Temple as Sam’s mother has a brief but heavy role, balancing her wanton behavior and her shirked duties as a parent. The weight of this film does, and should, lay on the shoulders of both Justin Timberlake and Ryder Allen. Thankfully, they have incredible chemistry. Timberlake’s Palmer has a rough cold exterior that is chipped away sweetly and deliberately by Allen. This kid has so much sass, energy and integrity. Two scenes in particular, while not wholly original in their execution, showcase not just Timberlake’s growth but Allen’s undeniable talent.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The visual effects and make-up design department had little work to do in this film. This wasn’t a story that relied on either of these supporting features much at all.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The score here was pretty much stock for the feel-good-recovering-character film scheme. We get some church music, some country music. Our ears will recognize the tones of billiard balls broken, beer bottles opened and the cadence of a high school marching band. If I’m being completely transparent, we hear the South in this film. That works for me.
I’ll say it: Justin Timberlake is an incredible actor. His performance is akin to the town his character lives in. Both are seemingly innocuous and calm on the outside, but inside a metamorphosis is happening. This is a film knowing it will push buttons. That gives it courage. It isn’t framed as a pushy, woke thought piece meant to divide folks at the family dinner table. It simply shows us that what we think is dangerous really isn’t; what we turn a blind eye to will ultimately be our end. I knew the end of this film before it really started, but my heart was moved the whole ride there.
PALMER will premiere January 29th on Apple TV+