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With: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, Juno Temple, June Squibb
Written by: Cheryl Guerriero
Directed by: Fisher Stevens
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content/nudity and brief violence
Running Time: 110
Date: 01/29/2021

Palmer (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gender Hearted

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's well-worn material, but Fisher Stevens's fine drama Palmer nonetheless proceeds with care and compassion, using its excellent performances to help create a moving, thoughtful, and inclusive experience.

Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) is freshly released from prison, on parole. A former high school football star, he made some bad decisions, but is now returning to his small Louisiana hometown to start fresh. He shows up at the home of his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who makes him go to church, and he soon lands a job as a school janitor.

Living across from Vivian is the troubled Shelly (Juno Temple), with her abusive boyfriend and her sweet son Sam (Ryder Allen). Shelly suddenly takes off, and Vivian begins looking after Sam. But suddenly Palmer finds himself in charge of the gender nonconformist Sam, who enjoys princesses and playing with dolls. Despite a rocky start, the two grow closer, and Palmer eventually realizes he'd like to be Sam's guardian. But Shelly returns, with something to say about that.

There have been dozens of movies about plucky kids who help grumpy adults become better people — from Charlie Chaplin's The Kid a century ago to the recent Driveways — but Palmer does the old story proud. Timberlake appears, shielding himself against pain, his jaw jutted out, but also full of regret and gratitude, willing to do whatever it takes to become a better person. His first scene with Squibb effortlessly draws smiles and sets the tone.

Young Allen (eight years old at the time of the movie's release) makes his feature film acting debut with absolute confidence and openness, quickly creating a believable bond with Timberlake. He carries Sam's gender nonconformity with beautiful grace and empathy. It goes without saying that the rest of the cast is worthy of them, and there's not a weak link anywhere.

Director Stevens is, of course, a veteran character actor (perhaps best known for Short Circuit), as well as an Oscar-winner (for producing the documentary The Cove), and he clearly brings all his experience to Palmer. He creates a vivid, logical small-town environment, where "church and football" are the most important things, a little grayish and stuck, but not without hope.

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