Boys don’t play with dolls.
After a twelve-year incarceration for attempted murder, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is finally coming home. If the main takeaway from that sentence is you wondering how you’ll ever believe Timberlake as an ex-con, know you’re not alone. That was my first thought too. But there are ex-cons who carry themselves as though the violent crime they committed is part of their identity and those who have truly repented and accepted what they did as a tragic mistake that took away a decade of their life. Palmer is the latter. He was a star high school quarterback with a full ride to LSU after all, raised by his grandmother (June Squibb‘s Vivian) in a rundown Louisiana two-bedroom. It wasn’t glamorous, but he was loved. Life simply veered off-course.
Meeting him at the start of director Fisher Stevens and screenwriter Cheryl Guerriero‘s Palmer as a stoic and uncertain stranger therefore makes sense. Prison left its mark, but he is still that kid calling his grandma “Ma’am” and agreeing to the rule that living under her roof means Sunday service every weekend. So when he sees the volatility happening at the trailer next-door (Juno Temple‘s drug addict Shelly and Dean Winters as her belligerent drunk of a boyfriend Jerry), he can understand that it’s both inexcusable and something he shouldn’t risk getting involved with while on parole. That doesn’t stop him from waking up in Shelly’s bed after a night at the local bar, but it does mean recognizing how doing so again wouldn’t be the greatest idea.
Things get more complex, though, once you add Shelly’s son Sam (Ryder Allen). Between his mother’s proclivities for narcotics and sex and the boy’s embracement of princesses and dolls despite living in a place where homophobic abuse can be found on every corner, the kid doesn’t stand a chance. If not for Vivien taking him in whenever his mother disappeared for weeks on end, he’d have been chewed up and spit out by the foster system ten times over. And as someone who hung out with the type of unsavory characters who’d accompany him on a road towards assault, seeing Sam act the way he does leads Palmer to put the onus for abuse on him. Don’t draw attention to yourself if you want to be left alone.
That’s obviously the wrong lesson, though. It’s not on the victim to change who they are simply to survive. It’s on the predators who use bigotry and hate as a means of preventing them from being themselves. Palmer gets this too even if he’s not quite sure how to let it dictate his actions amongst those who haven’t stopped believing the opposite. It’s why he wants to know where the man he beat lives in order to apologize while his old buddy Daryl (Stephen Louis Grush) practically says the guy deserved what he got. The same goes for when Palmer takes it upon himself to always apologize on his friends’ behalf rather than realize those so-called “friends” aren’t worth the trouble. What do they add to his life?
Now ask the same question about Sam. What does he add once Shelly’s latest absence finds Palmer watching the boy in Vivien’s image? Not only does Sam provide him a reason to come home at night sober, but he also gives him a purpose beyond what he’s being forced to do by his parole officer. The state will do everything in its power to stop him from succeeding (finding a job is nearly impossible and legally watching over Sam is), but what better way to do it anyway than because someone relies on his effort? It’s not about self-pity. It’s not about proving people who see him as a criminal wrong. Suddenly Palmer’s sole reason for living is to make sure Sam has a reason to smile.
The film is thus as cute as it is heartbreaking. Watching Palmer respect this pre-teen’s decisions to ignore the hate being spewed and enthusiastically wear a princess costume for Halloween is inspiring on multiple levels. Watching him willfully shake his past and the influences that are coming dangerously close to coaxing him into repeating them is too because it shows that we aren’t the labels placed upon us. Add Sam’s teacher/Palmer’s potential love interest Maggie Hayes (Alisha Wainwright) to the equation and you see the promise of a second chance. He let his past struggles steer him off-course twelve years ago. Putting his current ones in perspective now with the help of a maturity born from his arduous life experiences might just steer him back.
Because there’s some heavy subject matter involved where guardianship is concerned (Shelly is still Sam’s mother and Palmer having a record trumps any good he’s done raising the boy in her absence) and ample room for a backslide, don’t think this journey is going to be easy or privileged. It’s not as difficult as similar circumstances would be in real life (Palmer is nothing if not lucky for who he connects with upon his return and the chances he’s afforded off the back of Vivien’s good name), but Hollywood has a tendency of showing things in a rosier light in order for the tearjerker moments to land and the happily ever after to work. While the plot progression is therefore familiarly convenient, however, it never felt manipulative.
And that’s a big win for this type of film. Stevens isn’t the most dynamic of directors (the actor is known for the environmental documentaries that earned him a producing Oscar) and Guerriero’s former Black List script won’t blow you away, but there’s a lot of heart and an authentic path towards its creation. Credit Timberlake and Allen for that as their rapport is built with an ease of mutual respect and love that shines through any moments that may go too far into sentimentality or melodrama. The film’s success therefore hinges on our ability to believe Palmer would reinvent himself to become a parent to a kid who’s barely known one. And with plenty of fathers forcing sons into their mold around him, embracing Sam’s individuality is priceless.
 Justin Timberlake and Ryder Allen in “Palmer,” premiering globally January 29, 2021 on Apple TV+.
 Alisha Wainwright and Ryder Allen in “Palmer,” premiering globally January 29, 2021 on Apple TV+.
 Juno Temple in “Palmer,” premiering globally January 29, 2021 on Apple TV+.