Director – Fisher Stevens
Cast – Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, June Squibb, Alisha Wainwright, Juno Temple
Justin Timberlake plays an ex-con on the path of redemption in Palmer, a new film on Apple TV+. Its ‘original film’ moniker, however, is highly disputable, in every sense.
Not only is Palmer a by-the-numbers rehash of countless older movies, it is also an acquisition — a project that Apple picked up after it was already in the can. It’s the sort of low-risk drama that would’ve made a killing at the box office in conservative American states, which is a polite way of saying that it would’ve appealed to the MAGA crowd. Palmer isn’t overtly devout, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe it as a Christian film.
Watch the Palmer trailer here
I have very little experience with these. We don’t get too many Kevin Sorbo movies in India, and certainly, nobody is going out of their way to watch them. But for what it is worth, Palmer’s biggest weakness isn’t its pandering attitude, but its overly familiar story.
How many times have we seen movies about emotionally distant men who latch onto a child, or a young girl, to add purpose to their own lives? Why haven’t we devised a better way for them to evolve, without a woman or a child’s involvement? It’s a trope so popular that it is revisited almost on a monthly basis. This isn’t an exaggeration; you’ll find traces of it in everything from The Mandalorian to The Midnight Sky, from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm to News of the World. And these are just from the last quarter.
Director Fisher Stevens’ film takes off from this premise, but, perhaps in a fit of panic, introduces a twist so woke that it comes across as positively radical. Played by Justin Timberlake, Palmer isn’t any ordinary screw-up looking to get back on his feet by filling in as a father-figure to an abandoned child, he’s a screw-up looking to get back on his feet by filling in as a father-figure to an abandoned child who’s possibly trans.
Fresh out of a 12-year prison sentence for beating someone up, Palmer moves into his grandmother Vivian’s rural Louisiana house, penniless and filled with regret at having thrown away a potentially successful career as a sportsman. His grandmother’s next-door neighbour is an addict named Shelly, who is prone to disappearing for long stretches, leaving behind her seven-year-old son, Sam, with Vivian.
Shelly’s latest bender coincides with Palmer’s moving in. And of course, he wants nothing to do with the boy; Palmer has his own problems to deal with. But soon, he finds a job as a janitor at the local school, inadvertently scoring front-row seats to the daily harassment that Sam faces. Witnessing the mistreatment firsthand, and connecting with Sam on an emotional level — both, in a way, are outcasts — Palmer takes the boy under his wing.
This is the sort of movie Clint Eastwood could make over the Easter break, in line with what I like to describe as the filmmaker’s Enlightenment Era, bookended by Gran Torino and The Mule.
Even though Timberlake is doing his best Man with No Name impression, buying the former boyband superstar in this role requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. Despite the beard on his face and the flannel shirts on his back, you can’t quite shake the sensation that Palmer could, at any given moment, break into a rendition of Cry Me a River.
But what Timberlake can’t achieve in terms of appearance, he more than makes up for with an emotional honesty. And what he can’t achieve in terms of performance is compensated for by his young co-actor. Ryder Allen, as the non-binary Sam, is heartbreaking. A scene towards the end is so purely filmed and performed, it almost feels out of place in what is an otherwise unremarkable experience.
Movies like Palmer, streamed as they are on the glossiest of screens by the most innovative of tech companies, feel like relics of a bygone era. Its target audience might genuinely be more perplexed by the involvement of Timberlake than its progressiveness.
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar
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