Movie Mayhem – Palmer

Palmer — 2021; Directed by Fisher Stevens; Starring Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, Juno Temple and June Squibb

Because a lot of movie theaters are either closed or open in limited capacities, major studios are still delaying the majority of their films in hopes that the mess created over the last year will soon subside. Until that happens, it’s understandable that the majority of new “major” films are currently premiering on-demand or on streaming services. With many people still concerned about COVID-19 or strictly locked down by state governments, television is the only way they can get fresh content. Personally, I have no issues going to the cinemas, but with so little offerings out there, jumping on these streaming services is an appropriate alternative. Since August, when I reviewed Artemis Fowl, I’ve only caught a dozen or so new movies on these services, but you can probably expect to see quite a few more streaming reviews (for the next few months at the very least), starting with Apple TV+’s new film, Palmer.

Palmer takes place in a small-town burg with all level of residents from decent to degenerate. When Palmer (Justin Timberlake) arrives back in town after getting early parole for a crime he committed several years earlier, he is immediately greeted by his friends from both law enforcement and the wrong side of the tracks. Palmer moves back in with his grandmother (June Squibb) and the only job he can find is as a janitor at an elementary school. Little does Palmer know that he will soon be forced to become a father figure to Sam (Ryder Allen) after the boy’s mother (Juno Temple) splits town. Palmer’s grandmother accepts the boy into her care only to pass away in her sleep a few days later.

Actor Fisher Stevens has worked behind the camera for years in many different formats, and here it’s clear he desperately wants to make this film matter. Stevens has a hundred acting credits to his name and it shows in how well he’s able to direct his fellow actors throughout the film. He also understands the mechanics of directing a quiet film about redemption and standing up for those who are “different.” The problem manifests itself in the execution of the script, which comes of as a bit pandering to a select group as opposed to hitting the mark of true redemption that can be universally experienced.

On the one hand, you have all of the fundamental tropes of a redemption story: a young man with a past learns through the eyes of a child that he is being held back from the person he truly can be by not only his so-called friends but by his own feelings of guilt. To rise above these things, the child will inadvertently show him what a real hero can be just by standing up for the child and being there when they need them the most. However, embedded throughout these story parameters are plot threads that don’t seem to add up to anything outside of a simple attempt to be “woke.”

Timberlake plays Palmer as the epitome of masculine — a hardened criminal who drinks, smokes and beds whatever woman that even looks at him. Sam is the exact opposite — his favorite show is a cartoon about princesses, he plays with dolls and loves going to his friend’s house to have tea parties and play dress up. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; however, there is no reason for this dichotomy to be at play within the confines of the story being told.

I like that Sam knows who he is and isn’t afraid to be different or flaunt his love for what most would deem inappropriate for boys. After all, if this was a little girl who likes to play inherently boys things, no one would bat an eye. So this aspect of who Sam is works to a certain degree without feeling forced or shoved down our throats. However, I would have appreciated this much more had it played into how the two characters learn from one another on a grander scale.

For the character dynamic to truly work the way it’s intended, Palmer would have to be the opposite of how he’s displayed throughout the film. One one level, Palmer never truly disapproves of Sam’s decisions. There are a few brief instances where Palmer questions his choices, such as attempting to steer Sam to buy a boys costume for Halloween instead of the princess fairy costume. But even these moments are so subdued, that Palmer’s character arc is flattened to the point that his transformation is all but neutered.

On another level, you might expect Sam’s willingness to be who he is despite being bullied or having others look at him differently would help Palmer understand that he himself needs to find his own truth and live comfortably with himself. But at no point does Palmer ever try to deny his past. He is just as accepting of who he is and who he was as Sam is from the start, so there’s nowhere for Palmer to go emotionally. They try to provide a roadmap, but it’s nothing more than surface level ideologies. To put it mildly, instead of bringing these two together and allowing Palmer to strengthen Sam and Sam to soften Palmer, both characters are pretty much exactly the same at the end as they were at the beginning, leaving behind the question for why they chose to go in the direction they did with Sam’s character.

That being said, Timberlake and Allen work well together and add to a string of good performances that enrich the overall essence of the film. This includes the secondary relationship between Palmer and Sam’s teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), which never strays from the core story arc. Maggie is the perfect teacher, not only for Sam but for Palmer, as she does more to give Palmer a reason to soften his hard exterior than Sam does.

Outside of these core dynamics, there isn’t a lot of closure in a lot of the subplots. From the kids who bully Sam at school, or the principal who doesn’t care for Palmer, they fit into what the film is trying to say, but never completely fulfill their purpose. For example, one scene spends several minutes watching Sam’s principal (J.D. Evermore) interrogate Sam to find dirt of Palmer. After this scene, though, we never again here about this character, much less the accusations of abuse that he tries to force out of Sam. It’s things like this that refrain digging deep enough or manifest into anything other than stereotypes that diminish the capacity of the film’s underlying ideas.

I get where Stevens was going with all of this, I just don’t think he did enough to warrant the presence of many of the pieces that are included. I give him credit for attempting a few different ways of telling a tried-and-true story, but with the relationship between Palmer and Sam feeling more pedantic than it does genuine, Palmer doesn’t quite latch onto the heartstrings the way a film like this is usually able to accomplish.

My Grade: B

Bonus Reviews:

Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto are masters at work in The Little Things, an authentic nourish thriller that follows a small town cop teaming with a green detective to hunt down a serial killer, all of which leads to an ending that could reveal many different theories as to what the final minutes actually mean in the overall scheme of the precisely-directed narrative. Listen to my full (SPOILER) review of The Little Things on Ramblin’ Reviews: A

The Netflix original film Finding ‘Ohana will inevitably be compared to The Goonies, and for good reason: the film hits almost all of the same beats. What ‘Ohana is missing, though, is the heart and the competency of the eighties adventure, instead resorting to rehashed ideas, unnecessary subplots, stock characters, and casting choices that turn the characters into cloying annoyances. C+

Next week, new movies include Malcolm and Marie (Netflix) and The Reckoning. If you would like to see a review for this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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