Palmer (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): His new beginning with a queer kid

“Palmer”, which was released on Apple+ around the end of last month, could look refreshing if it came out, say, around 10 years ago. As a low-key drama about an ex-con who struggles to start his life again, it often rings true thanks to its humble but strong lead performance, but it also feels rather mild and predictable in case of handling a certain important gender issue involved with another main character in the story, and you may come to wish that it took a bolder attitude to that issue in question.

Justin Timberlake, who effectively dials down his usual charismatic presence here in this film, plays Eddie Palmer, who was once a promising college American football player but then ended up being incarcerated in a prison for more than 10 years due to some major felony. The movie opens with him returning to his rural hometown in Louisiana after his early release from the prison, and he comes to stay in the house of his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who raised him instead of his absent parents and still cares about him a lot despite his current status as an ex-con on parole.

Right next to Vivian’s house, there is a mobile home resided by a young woman named Shelly (Juno Temple) and her little son Sam (Ryder Allen). Because Shelly is often absent as frequently spending too much time outside, Vivian usually takes care of Sam instead of his mother, and Palmer gradually gets accustomed to Sam’s occasional presence in the house. Although he happens to have a quick physical encounter with Shelley at one night, he does not seem to be particularly interested in befriending this little cheery boy, and he remains rather distant even when Sam comes to stay in Vivian’s house longer than expected after his mother suddenly disappears along with her latest boyfriend for no apparent reason.

Meanwhile, the movie observes Palmer’s ongoing employment problem. He must get a job as required by his parole, but, not so surprisingly, nobody is willing to hire him because of his criminal record, and many of town people still remember well what he committed. When he subsequently tries to be hired as a janitor in the local elementary school which Sam attends, the principal of the school understandably shows some reservation at first, but he decides to give Palmer the second chance he really needs, and Palmer soon begins to work under an old maintenance guy named Sibs (Lance E. Nichols).

As he does one job after another in the school, Palmer comes to meet Sam’s class teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), and, of course, it does not take much time for them to be interested in spending more time with each other. As a caring teacher, Maggie is glad to see Sam having someone to lean on besides Vivian, and it looks like she does not care that much about Palmer’s dark past, though he hesitates to get closer to her as still struggling with his rehabilitation process.

Palmer also comes to spend more time with Sam after a small unexpected plot turn, and he becomes more aware of how atypical Sam is compared to many other boys around his age. Besides often enjoying having a little tea party with his close female classmate, this adorable kid is a big fan of a TV animation series full of bright colors and pretty princesses, and he is also eager to wear a dress and put some makeup on his face.

While Sam does not have much problem with his developing gender identity, some people around him are not so pleased to see him behaving like a girl outside. At one point, he is bullied at his school, but then, fortunately for him, Palmer comes to the rescue, and that certainly leads to more relationship development between them. Although the screenplay by Cheryl Guerriero is rather vague about what Palmer actually thinks about Sam’s gender identity, it gives Timberlake and his young co-star Ryder Allen a series of somber but sensitive scenes to play, and they are mostly convincing in the depiction of their characters’ growing emotional bond.

However, the story stumbles during its third act coupled with the expected return of Sam’s mother, who is no more than a convenient plot device and does have much human depth from the beginning. Unfortunately stuck in her thankless role, Juno Temple tries as much as she can here, but there is nothing she can do except looking alternatively pathetic and hysterical, and it is rather depressing for me to see this talented actress thoroughly wasted on the screen.

In case of several other supporting performers in the film, they are in relatively better positions while leaving some substantial impression on us. While June Squibb, a 91-year-old veteran actress who has been more notable since her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Nebraska” (2013), effortlessly conveys to us her character’s open-minded compassion and kindness, Alisha Wainwright brings some life and personality to her functional role, and Lance E. Nichols is also solid as Palmer’s no-nonsense boss.

Under director Fisher Stevens’ competent direction, “Palmer” is fairly watchable on the whole, but its several weak aspects including its blatant plot contrivance kept distracting me during my viewing. While I understand its good intentions in addition to appreciating a number of good things including Timberlake’s fine acting, it is a bit too mild to impress me enough on the whole, and I will just let you decide whether you will watch it or now.

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