If they handed out awards for sincerity, then the people behind Palmer would get a lot of time to gush at the podium: It’s passionately acted and filmed. Everybody believes in every ounce of it, and there are moments where that belief seeps into the audience, as well. Unfortunately, Palmer also presents a cinematic odyssey where both journey and destination will feel thoroughly predictable. Good intentions and great performances almost hoist the film up out of its familiar groove, but not quite.
The story begins just as Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) gets paroled from a long stretch in prison. He meekly settles back into his bayou hometown, where everyone regards him with an awkward hybrid of fame and infamy: In this land where the lights shine brightest on Friday nights, Palmer had once been their quarterback stud. He set records and won trophies, before venturing forth to play at almighty LSU. Somewhere along that path to rarefied air, Palmer lost his way and ended up in the clink. When we first meet Palmer, he is a broken, humble man, just beginning the second act of his life.
Palmer moves in with Vivian (June Squibb), his sweet, slightly batty grandmother. Palmer was orphaned as a child, making Vivian his sole parent and guiding light. She also rents the mobile home in her yard to Shelly (Juno Temple), who seems to live in a permanent haze of drugs and booze. Shelly is quasi-mom to Sam (Ryder Allen), a good-hearted young boy who wears make-up and plays with dolls.
Just as Palmer settles into this unexpected home life, he falls back in with his rowdy clique of school buddies. They’re all a little sweatier and paunchier, but everybody still seems to be living off that pitiful high school glory. To Vivian’s great chagrin, Palmer quickly takes a few steps back down a dark path: He goes out all night and sleeps in his clothes. He also takes a janitorial job at Sam’s elementary school, but that doesn’t seem like it will stick for very long.
You can probably guess what happens: Palmer slowly and reluctantly gains a few reasons to live. Turns out, Sam is an amazing, resilient little boy in search of his unique identity. And Sam has a beautiful, fiercely independent teacher named Miss Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), who might be kinda sweet on ol’ Palmer. All this means that Palmer now has the chance to be the hero he never really was in high school. Naturally, life throws a few familiar hurdles in the way, and the threaten to trip up all the progress Palmer has made.
You’ll recognize bits and pieces of Palmer from tons of other dramas. You’ll spot every twist and bend in the plot well before it arrives. The crazy thing? It still kinda works. JT is just that good. His ferocious conviction lifts the entire movie. Every word, every emotion rings true. It’s his best performance to date, and it suggests that Timberlake might forge an acting career to match his musical resumé. (And I’m a fan, so that’s saying something.)
All the other players are right there with him: Allen is a natural, giving Sam a guileless charm that somehow seems precious and completely real. Wainwright wrings a lot from the otherwise tired role of requisite love interest. Her Maggie is strong, smart, and never seems like a mere screenwriter’s invention. Squibb doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but she builds an endearingly quirky chemistry with Timberlake.
Savvy moviegoers will be able to map out the third act of Palmer by the time the first act is wrapping up. It’s a testament to the skill of JT and company that this forgone conclusion still makes an impact. You may know where Sam and Palmer are headed, but you’ll root hard for them to get there anyway. For all its flaws, Palmer will smack you in the feelings, and that’s exactly what a good drama is supposed to do.
110 min. R. Apple+