JUSTIN Timberlake gained fame as a singer in the boyband NSYNC in the mid-90s. He then went solo and also tried acting in films like “Bad Teacher” and “Friends with Benefits”. He now tries drama in the Apple Original film, “Palmer”, where he plays the title role.
We first see Eddie Palmer arriving on the small Louisiana town where he grew up with his grandma. We learn that he was just released after 12 years in jail. His grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), is happy to see him again. He stays with her and meets their neighbor’s 8-year old son, Sam (Ryder Allen).
Vivian takes care of Sam when the boy’s irresponsible and slutty mother, Shelly (Juno Temple), goes away for long periods of time. The first time she meets Palmer, Shelly quickly takes him to her bed and they spend the night together.
We learn that Palmer used to be a football star in their school but he had an injury during a car crash, lost his scholarship, got into drugs and tried to rob someone. He is now trying to rebuild his life and applies for a job but, at first, no one wants to hire him. Most people are hostile to him, regarding him as a lost cause. But the supervisor in the local grade school takes a chance on him and gets him as a janitor.
When Vivian suddenly departs in her sleep, Palmer has no choice but to look after Sam, whose mom is gone once again. At first, he is indifferent to Sam, who is effeminate, likes to play with dolls and addicted to a TV show about flying princesses. But Sam is so guileless and soon, Palmer finds himself protecting him from school bullies who harasses him for being a faggot.
The bond between the two develops gradually. When Palmer sees the boy having nothing but cookies for his school lunch, he makes a decent sandwich for him. He also takes him to a football game and goes with him and his teacher, Miss Maggie (Alysha Wainwright), to a bowling event and fundraiser.
Soon, romance also blooms between Palmer and Miss Maggie. Palmer tries to legally adopt Sam but he’s informed he’s not qualified since he is a convicted felon and is just on parole. When Sam comes home crying because Palmer’s homophobic friends made fun of him, he confronts them and beats up his own friend named Darryl who messed up Sam’s make up.
More problems come up when Palmer is informed that he and Sam have to leave Vivian’s house as it was donated to the church. Shelly also returns with her new boyfriend to get Sam back. When Palmer sees that Shelly and her boyfriend are both using drugs, he takes Sam away but Shelly calls the cops and accuses him of kidnapping.
The film makes us recall the 1978 Dolphy film, “Ang Tatay Kong Nanay”, where the gay Dolphy takes care of the small boy played by Nino Muhlach then the mother comes back to reclaim him. But here, the situation is reversed. It is the little boy who is gay and his surrogate dad is a macho man who connects with him since they share the same experience of being made to feel different by the people around them.
Critics would easily dismiss “Palmer” for being melodramatic but, in fairness to the movie, it really avoids being mawkish and controls the sentiments once things get too emotional. As such, it doesn’t become a real tearjerker but is more like Palmer himself who never lapses into full blown crying. We just see his eyes getting moist.
For us, the film’s most touching moments are the ones where both Palmer and Sam just accept each other as they are. You know that their connection has changed them both for the better, but the good thing is that they have both become more accepting, more tolerant of themselves. The tough guy and the effeminate kid have become an odd but endearing couple who are beneficial to each other, two square pegs who don’t fit the round holes expected from them by other people.
Justin has always been more identified as strutting pop star, but here, he comes up with a very credible portrayal of a man who learns how to suppress his anger in his determination to turn his life around. He treats his role with restraint and his feelings are expressed more in the look in his eyes and even the way he carries himself.
Directed by Fisher Stevens (an actor himself), the film has good intentions and deliver its message about the importance of compassion and tolerance without belaboring it to the point of being preachy. The story just keeps moving forward to a deeper interpretation of what good parenting is and how redemption can eventually be attained with love and nurturing that can give one a sense of purpose.
The director also elicited fine work from the child actor Ryder Allen as Sam, a role that asks him not just to be a cute gay kid but to give an honest and heartwarming performance that never goes overboard.