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Justin Timberlake shines in emotional drama ‘Palmer’

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I’m a huge admirer of triple threats – that is, performers with the ability to sing, dance and act at a high level. It’s a term most often foisted upon stage actors, specifically Broadway types, but it can be applied to a number of stage and screen talents.

Here’s the thing, though: Something has to be third. No one is EQUALLY gifted at singing, dancing and acting. Yes, you can be good, even great, at all three, but there has to be one that comes in last.

This brings us to Justin Timberlake, a performer of immense ability across the spectrum – a legitimate triple threat. However, I feel very comfortable saying that for JT, acting definitely comes in third.

And yet, when I watch him in “Palmer,” his new film currently streaming on Apple TV+, I wonder. Not enough to change my mind, of course, but that’s more because his singing/dancing talents are so extreme rather than any acting shortcoming. We haven’t seen Timberlake take on any kind of a serious role in years (and never anything like this one), so it’s easy to forget.

This movie – directed by Fisher Stevens from a screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero – pushes the pop star toward a darkness that is vastly unlike any of his previous efforts. It’s a heartfelt story of redemption and acceptance, one that goes to some morally murky places and is unafraid to venture into unpleasant territory. It’s about responsibility, about protecting those who need protection and how that protective instinct can grow into something more. And it’s about what happens when someone who has lost everything sees a chance to regain some of what he no longer has.

Eddie Palmer (Timberlake) has been gone from his small Louisiana hometown for a long time. Twelve years in fact – time he spent in prison. Once a legendary high school football player – one who made it all the way to LSU, in fact – he is now left to try and pick up the pieces of his life. He moves in with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb, “Godmothered”) and starts looking for a job. All he wants is to keep his nose clean and figure things out.

Palmer’s plans are complicated by the neighbors. Shelly (Juno Temple, TV’s “Ted Lasso”) lives in a camper on Vivian’s property. She struggles with substance issues and has a tendency to disappear for days at a time. Hence, her son Sam (Ryder Allen in his feature debut) often winds up staying with Vivian – and now, with Palmer. Initially, Palmer is put off by the boy’s unapologetic flamboyance – he plays with dolls and adores a princess-themed cartoon show – but it doesn’t take long before Sam’s thoughtful sensitivity begins to grow on him.

Palmer winds up getting a job as a janitor at the local elementary school, where he starts to see the way some of the kids mistreat Sam (though the boy also has some friends, including the daughter of one of Palmer’s old buddies). He also meets Maggie (Alisha Wainwright, “Death of a Telemarketer”), Sam’s teacher; the two connect over shared concern for Sam, but it starts to turn into something more.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to escape your past when you’re surrounded by it. Palmer’s criminal misdeeds loom large over everything else in his life, leaving him to tiptoe around the edges while also trying to do his best to look after Sam and wondering what happens when (or if) Shelly returns. And as much as he wants to protect the boy, circumstances conspire to make that a very complicated proposition.

I’ll be honest – I wasn’t sure if I was going to like “Palmer.” It’s certainly a departure for Timberlake, who hadn’t done an onscreen turn since 2017’s “Wonder Wheel.” And the potential is here for some really syrupy, saccharine predictability – pushing buttons in service to provoking unearned emotional reactions.

Instead, we get a surprisingly genuine and moving story of acceptance. Don’t get me wrong – there’s some heartstring tugging going on here. However, the relationships are built on what feels like a solid foundation, allowing us to see just how hard it is to be different and how important it is to have people who support us without condition or hesitation. And lest we forget, the baked-in inclusivity is an important factor as well.

Director Stevens does good work in evoking the insularity of this community; one has a constant awareness of the smallness of the place, as well as the feeling of suffocation and struggle that can come with feeling trapped by both past and present. He also teases out relationship dynamics, lending them real depth. Those connections could easily have been surface-level in this type of story, so it’s nice to experience them with a little complexity.

Still, with a movie like this, it comes down to the performances. Now, I established at the beginning that I am a believer in Timberlake’s talents, but I wasn’t sure if he had it in him to tackle something this heavy. Turns out, he is – it’s a nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of a man forced to start over surrounded by people who knew him when he was at the top of the mountain … and who know why he tumbled to the bottom. There’s an edge to this character that I was pleasantly surprised to see. Meanwhile, young Ryder Allen is an utter delight, spirited and cheerful in the face of ugliness. He’s charmingly indefatigable and precocious, handling himself admirably alongside much more experienced performers.

The supporting cast is rock solid as well. Squibb is a treasure, perfectly suited for this role. Temple’s Shelly is a mess, yet she finds a way to make the character pitiable rather than reviled. Wainwright is good, taking advantage of her moments. And the small-town ensemble is spot-on across the board, both in terms of the nice folks and the not-so-nice ones.

“Palmer” is an emotional roller coaster of a movie, sweet and sad and quietly funny. But thanks to some great performances and a heaping helping of sincerity, it fully earns those peaks and valleys. It’s not quite great, but it’s plenty good enough.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 February 2021 11:37

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