Directed by Fisher Stevens
Written by Cheryl Guerriero
As a popular culture figure, Justin Timberlake has had an interesting and unique journey. Breaking into our lives as part of a boy band is not traditionally the way to lifelong stardom, but Timberlake made it work by breaking out on his own solo career and not letting the boy band brand define him. But his career really took a turn into a whole new level when he broke into the film scene with various supporting roles. His breakthrough came in 2010 as Sean Parker in The Social Network. In another lifetime, Timberlake would have been a triple threat superstar, headlining Hollywood musicals while performing for packed theaters when not on the studio lot. But alas, his talents don’t fully align with the modern movie star construct. Since The Social Network, Timberlake has failed to breakthrough as a headlining star, despite a few efforts to do so, but he remains an interesting performer to me. I think with the right roles, he can be a very good actor worthy of the screen. With Palmer, he gets another chance to be a leading man, but this time around, he plays a little against type, crafting a new, fresh and interesting performance.
Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) has just been released after spending 12 years in prison for attempted murder, a college transgression which he truly regrets after throwing away his career as a star quarterback at LSU. Returning home to her grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who raised Eddie after a troubled childhood, Palmer struggles to find his feet. The young family who lives next door in a trailer begins to enter his life, as the drug addict mother (Juno Temple) neglects her son Sam (Ryder Allen). Vivian sadly passes, forcing Palmer into the father role for Sam, whose mother has been missing for weeks. Finally landing on his feet as a janitor in Sam’s school, Palmer begins to excel at fatherhood, forming a special bond with Sam, who is bullied by schoolmates for being too effeminate. Together with his teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), Palmer begins to form a loving childhood with Sam, but soon enough his mother returns, threatening Palmer’s life to fall apart once again.
It’d be very easy to look at this film and quickly dismiss it as unworthy of attention. Perhaps as an easy parallel to Sam. It is a cliched story, with a former pop star as the lead actor, and not much star power outside of his presence. It’s not really anything special, and is pretty predictable. And yet, I was quite taken by it, largely due to Ryder Allen and his performance as Sam, the kid who is just looking to fit in while being himself. Much like Palmer, the film is lifted up by Sam and his infectious energy, his passion for Penelope the flying princess and tea parties, and the simple desire to be loved by family and friends alike. In stark contrast with Juno Temple, who plays Sam’s mother in a horrible, over the top performance, Ryder Allen’s performance is quiet, subtle, and quite frankly irresistible. It’s impossible to not fall for this kid, and completely understanding how Palmer did, and how Sam helped give Palmer purpose.
Sometimes there are films who are technically proficient, well acted, interesting cinematography, etc, but misses the mark, rings hollow or fails to see the point. Those can be very frustrating experiences because an otherwise perfectly good film ends up lost. Palmer is maybe the opposite of that. The filmmaking it fine, but there is really nothing outstanding here. It’s a run of the mill, ho-hum, standard film with nothing new, nothing we haven’t seen before. And yet, Palmer hits all the emotional notes right. It manages to communicate its message and story effectively. It won’t make my year end list, nothing about it will, but I was also easily taken by this film. Surprises aren’t always good ones, but in the case of Palmer, it’s definitely a good surprise to see how emotionally resonate and impactful a flawed film like this one can be.