Just a few months ago, Juno Temple helped give the fledgling Apple TV+ service its first must-see: Ted Lasso, a practically perfect comedy series that radiated decency and hope in a world that…well, you were there. She’s very much on the other side of the coin in her reunion with the streaming service, playing a drug-addicted single mom so neglectful that abandoning her kid to the care of a just-released felon is actually a step in the right direction.
That ex-con is the eponymous hero of Fisher Stevens’ Palmer, and as played by Justin Timberlake, he’s nearly compelling enough to make you ignore how many times protecting a child has redeemed troubled or grouchy grown-ups on screen. A capable cast helps the pic rise above its formulaic nature (take out a drunken hookup and some language, and this is a thoroughly mainstream family film, at least for families of non-homophobes), but doesn’t make it a must-watch by any means. For followers of Timberlake’s acting record, which has had ups and downs in both commercial and artistic terms, it’s more evidence that a fruitful second career might await the pop star if he wants it.
Timberlake successfully stretches in a mostly formulaic drama.
Timberlake’s Eddie Palmer is a former hometown hero whose football career ended after just a year of college ball. Bad choices and a weakness for pain pills led him to prison, but he did his time without complaint; returning to small-town Louisiana, he’s willing to start at the bottom to make a new life.
He moves in with the grandmother who raised him. Vivian (June Squibb) insists on church-going and isn’t about to coddle her boy: Most of her maternal energies are now needed by Sam (Ryder Allen), the son of the woman who rents a trailer in her side yard. Temple’s Shelly loves Sam but isn’t equipped to juggle an addiction, an angry boyfriend (a way-underutilized Dean Winters) and a kid. She often vanishes for days or weeks, leaving Vivian his de facto family. Shelly’s on a long one of these benders when Vivian dies.
As is customary in these stories, Palmer has no desire to be saddled with childcare. He’s maybe even a little disgusted by this kid in particular. Sam wears barrettes and plays with dolls; princesses are his “favorite thing in the whole world.” “You know you’re a boy, right?,” Palmer asks him early on. But seeing others harass the child is all it takes to make Palmer set his annoyance aside. This is a town of schoolyard bullies and Sunday-morning gossips, and Cheryl Guerriero’s script shows admirable restraint in letting us draw our own comparisons between the plight of the felon and the gender nonconformist.
Palmer gets it. And, since the only job in town he can nab is as a school janitor, he gets to keep tabs on Sam both day and night. His attentiveness is inevitably noticed by Sam’s pretty, divorced teacher Miss Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), who volunteers her assistance with Sam’s care. The two adults deserve some kind of minor award for managing to spend as much time as they do together pretending they’re only interested in taking care of the kid.
Timberlake plots a credible line from a prisoner’s taciturn self-protectiveness through the humility of freedom-with-limits to the dawning of a possible new life. Palmer’s not an especially well-drawn character, but he feels real enough to fight for Sam when the time comes — both physically, confronting bullies when the boy can’t, and legally, once the requisite challenge to his custody arises. Stevens doesn’t play the tearjerker card shamelessly, as many of his predecessors have in similar instances. But the film has little trouble getting us on Palmer’s side, and hoping the powers that be will come around and make him a dad.
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Hercules Film Fund, Rhea Films
Distributor: Apple TV+
Cast: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, Juno Temple, June Squibb, Lance E. Nichols, Jesse C. Boyd, Wynn Everett, Stephen Louis Grush
Director: Fisher Stevens
Screenwriter: Cheryl Guerriero
Producers: Charlie Corwin, Sidney Kimmel, Daniel Nadler, John Penotti, Charles B. Wessler
Executive producers: Terry Dougas, Jared Goldman, Cheryl Guerriero, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis
Director of photography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production designer: Happy Massee
Costume designer: Megan Coates
Editor: Geoffrey Richman
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
R, 111 minutes