Palmer REVIEW – Great Performances, Formulaic Story

Fisher Stevens returns to the director’s chair for his latest fiction film since 2012’s Stand-Up Guys.


Palmer tells the story of Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake), an ex-convict who is on parole and living with his grandmother, Vivian (June Squibb), until he gets back on his feet and finds a job. Vivian watches over a young boy named Sam (Ryder Allen) from time to time when his mother (Juno Temple) leaves her house for long periods.

However, when Vivian dies suddenly, Palmer is forced to become Sam’s temporary guardian, not knowing where his mother is and when she’ll come back to him. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is, borrowing a quasi-similar plotline from Dennis Dugan’s Big Daddy. While it contains excellent lead performances, Palmer’s story is contrived in predictability, which never allows the film to soar as it should.

Justin Timberlake doesn’t seem to get enough credit as an actor, even though he has proved himself with films like Alpha Dog and The Social Network. In Palmer, he gives the best performance of his entire career, as he builds on the dramatic films he’s worked on to deliver a nuanced, fully-developed portrayal of an ex-con who finally gets his shot at redemption by taking care of Sam. At first, he doesn’t want anything to do with Sam; it’s not his problem. And the fact that Sam’s strange behavior makes him an easy target with other kids at his school adds to a plethora of difficulties Palmer has to deal with. But he learns to grow with Sam and starts accepting him as who he is.

His behavioral patterns start changing; Palmer becomes less self-centered and more open and caring towards others, as he starts to develop a relationship with Sam’s teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright). The chemistry that occurs with Timberlake’s Palmer and Ryder Allen’s star-making portrayal of Sam is the film’s most vital element.

There’s a raw sense of humanity between the two, making the characters feel incredibly vulnerable. Some of Palmer’s most dramatic sequences, where Eddie risks his parole to defend Sam from his neglectful, abusive mother and adults mocking his behavior, are where Timberlake shines the most. These are the moments when you genuinely care about Palmer’s friendship with Sam, even if the material that supports this is mostly uninspired.

Palmer contains a story we’ve all seen before, done in vastly better movies: an individual is forced to take care of someone (or something) he/she doesn’t want until a bond starts to form and the protagonist can’t live without it, because they know, deep down inside, they finally found a purpose in their lives. While director Fisher Stevens does try to include an element that differentiates itself from other films of this type, by making the lead child queer, Palmer can never soar past its insanely formulaic and heteronormative plot.

Many scenes that involve Palmer trying to conform Sam to heterosexuality by trying to convince him to not dress up as a fairy princess for Halloween or bringing him to a “masculine” football game are completely ill-conceived and leave a wrong impression afterward.

Because of this, Palmer has no fair idea what it wants to say on the themes of masculinity and gender identity, as it kowtows to a narrowed-down vision of queerness. Ultimately, Palmer’s message never fully explores its themes as it stops at the sentence: “It’s okay to be different.” while giving the titular character a second chance at redemption through that light. It’s a rather facile way to address an incredibly complex subject matter, one that could’ve been better explored with a better filmmaker.

Still, Palmer contains impressive performances that need to be commended for the genuine humanity and heart Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, and June Squibb convey. They fill a terribly pedestrian script with life, which turns the viewing experience from frustratingly unoriginal to somewhat watchable. And it’s for that sole reason that Palmer isn’t as terrible as it is, but also not as remarkable as it should be.

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Despite spectacular acting from a star-studded cast that brings a welcome sense of humanity, Palmer can never soar past its unimaginatively mundane script, containing a poorly-conceived study of gender identity.