Sometimes good intentions and proper execution fail to work concurrently in movies, as is the case with the well-meaning but bland Palmer. It’s unfortunate because the movie’s message and heart are in the right place, but it’s presented in a been-there, done-that Movie of the Week package, which doesn’t allow a viewer to emotionally grasp on to much.
Justin Timberlake stars as Eddie Palmer, who is released from prison after a 12-year sentence. Palmer – as he prefers to be called – has a reputation around his hometown. He was once a promising high school football star, but everything was undone in one night, where he made the wrong choice. Twelve years later, he winds up at his grandmother Vivian’s house (played by June Squibb), while he tries to get re-acclimated to life outside of a prison cell. A job or place of his own aren’t his immediate concerns. He goes to the local bar, gets drunk and spends the night with Shelly (Juno Temple), who lives in the trailer next to his grandmother’s home.
Shelly has a young son named Sam (played by newcomer Ryder Allen). It appears Shelly has a habit of disappearing, a history of drug abuse and the inability to give Sam the attention he needs at such a young age. One day, Sam has dinner at Vivian’s and doesn’t go back home because Shelly is nowhere to be found. Sam takes a liking to Palmer, who has no idea how to spend time with a pre-teen boy, but Sam refuses to let Palmer shrug him off. Their unexpected friendship begins to blossom the more they spend time together.
The foundation of Palmer has been exhausted by many movies before. The young child becoming friends with someone much older than him isn’t new terrain, and they eventually learn a great deal about life from each other. The difference here is Sam isn’t like “every other boy.” He plays with dolls, wears pink clothing and doesn’t miss an episode of his favorite princess cartoon. Sam is perfectly comfortable with who he is, but given how cruel school-age kids can be, he is the target of bullies. Palmer makes a conscious effort to demolish the notion of how a “normal” boy should act and behave, which is entirely admirable, even if its R-rating will keep younger audiences from being able to see the movie.
The problem is Stevens’ bland direction and uneven pacing, which keeps the movie at a distance, instead of being able to embrace the film’s intentions. Palmer runs just under two hours, but it quickly feels like it is just going through the motions, making sure to hit every predictable narrative beat before its predestined conclusion.
Palmer is designed as a vehicle to launch Timberlake as a serious actor. He has brought his enormous celebrity to supporting roles in movies like The Social Network, which makes perfect use of his charisma and swagger. He has proven himself as a solid romantic lead, paired with Mila Kunis in Friends with Benefits. Palmer feels like an effort to show him as a dramatic leading man and he’s just fine here, if a bit mannered with his furrowed brows and one-word answers. His dramatic chops and star power were more effectively used in 2006’s deeply underrated Alpha Dog.
Movies like Palmer live by the chemistry between the child and adult and Timberlake and Allen have a playful back-and-forth as they try to adapt to their new living arrangement. There are individual moments throughout, which are effective, but its overwhelming sense of familiarity and slack pacing hold it back almost every step of the way.
Palmer will begin streaming on Apple TV+ starting January 29.