The ex-convict narrative is a well-worn path of familiar small stories. Every variant builds its drama on most of the same precarious tipping points. There’s the “you can always go home” affections of loyal open arms set against burned bridges and judgmental local side-eye. You have the urge to shake institutionalization and find a good job, thrust into a difficult market that overwhelmingly looks down on felons. You have the tug-of-war between making better life choices and falling into old habits that trigger parole violations and a return behind bars.
Any of those routes boil down to admirable efforts versus inadequate efforts, with a sweep of hard emotions at every forward or backward step. Fisher Stevens’ new film Palmer, starring Justin Timberlake on Apple TV+, walks each of those trails with heavy feet, towards stability instead of heavy hands trying to pound extra points home. What results is some of the best acting the multi-talented 40-year-old has ever done.
Timberlake’s Eddie Palmer is a former small-town high school football stud whose star rose to the collegiate level before spiraling downwards after a career-ending injury led to an unfortunate crime that locked him up for a dozen years. Free now as a bearded thirtysomething, Palmer moves back in with his grandmother Vivian (Nebraska’s June Squibb) who raised him. Being home again, he encounters old buddies and old reputations while looking for work. Palmer finds his next drink, his next cigarette, and a quick one-night stand with a local floozy named Shelly (professional twitchy artist Juno Temple) instead of anything positive at first.
A constant neighborly visitor to Vivian’s house is Shelly’s elementary son Sam (Ryder Allen, in his film debut). He’s a good-natured and pudgy little kid with a very effeminate individuality. Vivian often takes him in for weeks at a time, when Shelly often skips town on drug-fueled flings and benders. Playing with dolls and watching princess cartoons with Sam are not ideal participation pursuits for the manly beer-swilling Palmer, especially as more responsibility for the little guy falls on his shoulders as the man of the house.
Kids are disarming. Bit by bit, the lovable youth and his doting clinginess to Palmer soften the man’s bruised heart. It’s his innocence, and Sam has more than most at his age, which is a very adorable and encouraging thing to engage. Credit goes to young Ryder Allen for his quaint (and non-suckering) charm.
Palmer comes to care for and defend the abandoned kid who, as one can imagine, has a difficult time with peers and stability. This burgeoning kinship in Palmer is where the film avoids clumsy preachiness. The good talks on bullying, labels, and broken homes stay talks instead of spotlight-garnering speeches. Resolving identity where so many others falter is as simple as “so what if you’re different.”
Calling back to those previously described tipping points, achieving true reform and sticking to it is challenging. Staying clean against vices is not easy. Pride is swallowed to take a job as a school custodian for Sibs (Lance E. Nichols), yet it counts as a formative, honest living. Earning the affections of Sam’s kind teacher Miss Maggie (emerging TV star Alisha Wainwright) amid the unshakeable red flags requires gaining newfound dignity. Lastly, taking on a kid, especially one that’s not yours, is more than merely good of a person to do. Each of those decent things become binding promises for our leading man.
Fisher Stevens (Stand Up Guys), reclaiming this Cheryl Guerriero script from the 2016 Black List, put the film in Timberlake’s hands and didn’t get fancy. Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) favored static framing to the overused handheld techniques and looks that most podunk-set films go for to appear coarse and unfashioned. The slight, but expressive score from Tamar-kali (Mudbound) follows that same strictness in tone, and a poignant original song from Americana singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff gives it a fitting cathartic finish. These traits support the solidity.
A different movie would emphasize a caddish villain and layer the drama on far too thick, for some kind of extra emphasis meant to help a big star try and prove they can shun glamour and act next to a heavy. Justin Timberlake acquits himself with precisely the admirable effort matching his character. Dark places bring out true strength in the actor, instead of a bad-boy edge. Such credibility and candor build honesty rather than showy magic.