Palmer - Premieres January 29th, Apple TV+
I feel like I’ve seen Palmer several times before. It’s that predictable. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. In fact, sometimes the fun comes from watching a film and knowing exactly where the plot is going, wallowing in that predictability.
Palmer, from fantastic character actor and sometime director Fisher Stevens, features your regular roster of small-town characters dealing with their small-town lives, prejudices, problems and dramas. Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is fresh out of prison for a violent crime he committed in college. He goes home to stay with his lovely but set in her ways grandma (June Squibb), where after hooking up with old friends and a neighbour he sets about trying to get a job and set himself on the right track. Then he reluctantly befriends a young boy (it’s more one-way friendship at first).
Where the film takes a slight detour from the norm is that while the boy has those usual home problems these kids always do, he’s also someone who loves fairies, pink, dresses and makeup. Not exactly readily accepted in these kinds of towns. It’s a nice touch that the film doesn’t spend too much time on why Sam, the boy, likes these things. Many people in the movie readily accept him for who he is and the ones who don’t clearly come across as the bad guys. It’s also lovely to see Sam doesn’t question himself. He likes what he likes, and that’s it. It’s normal.
After Sam’s mother leaves town, Palmer and his grandma look after him, not knowing for how long. Cue cute bonding sessions and a slow melting of the mighty outer shell of Palmer. That’s only the setup, but if you guessed what else happens, you’d probably be right.
Despite a standout performance in 2006’s Alpha Dog, Justin Timberlake’s breakout role was in 2010’s The Social Network as Sean Parker, creator of Napster and early investor in Facebook. JT, as we all know him, got to pour all of his charisma, winning smile and sparkly-eyed looks into a larger than life person. It was perfect casting, and he rewarded director David Fincher with a character of duplicitous flavour. It was maybe the stand out performance of an already stacked film.
That’s what makes his casting and performance in Palmer so strange. It’s not that it’s a bad performance, it’s that the character itself has no charisma. I'm guessing JT wanted to try something new but, maybe because he himself is so full of life, his performance just comes off as relatively flat. He seems to think ‘troubled and withdrawn’ means a straight, sullen faced, not revealing any emotion. I think it’s about 30 minutes in before he shows real emotion on his face. As the character starts to open up during the film, sure enough, the performance gets better.
Interestingly, when you compare JT to Ted Lasso star Juno Temple, you see the difference in performance vs character. Like Ted Lasso, Temple’s character is very stereotypical. However, unlike Ted Lasso, the film doesn’t try to write any depth into her drug-addicted, wayward mother. This doesn’t stop Temple from throwing everything she has at the character, so she becomes a gripping screen presence. For Palmer, JT takes a fully rounded character and tries to pull back on the character depths, hoping it makes him seem troubled and difficult.
As you’d expect, the character of Sam, the young boy Palmer has to look after, falls into the quippy, cheeky and loveable style that all these types do. But to the writer’s and actor Ryder Allen’s credit it’s to just the right level. A boy liking to dress up in pink and watch fairy cartoons could have easily been played as large, over the top or even for comedy. In this case, you never forget you’re looking at a real boy who just happens to like ‘girls’ things. It’s a good performance that balances out the sullenness of other parts of the film.
The film may be very predictable, have a not entirely convincing lead performance and be a bit too light on character development (especially the women, like Sam’s mother and his school teacher) but it is quite watchable. It’s unchallenging, and sometimes that can be what you need. Watching a film shouldn't always be an entirely unpredictable experience, sometimes you need the comfort of knowing what you’re going to get. Palmer offers that; family dramas to solve, small-town life, an uncomplicated plot, redemption and a charming child actor.