'Palmer' Reestablishes Justin Timberlake as a Magnetic Leading Man

Directed by Fisher Stevens

Starring Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Juno Temple

BY Alex HudsonPublished Feb 3, 2021

About a decade ago, it looked like Justin Timberlake's acting career might catch up with his music career in terms of renown. He's slowed down in recent years, however, having made just one feature film appearance since 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis (not including those animated Trolls movies). With Palmer, Timberlake is back on-screen, and he's still got the charisma that made him the best part of some fairly average movies (we're looking at you, Friends with Benefits and In Time).

Timberlake stars as Palmer's titular character, an ex-convict released on parole after 12 years behind bars. We don't immediately learn what Palmer went to prison for, but he seems to be reformed, since he's fairly polite when living with his grandma, Vivian (June Squibb), and he doesn't waste any time in finding a janitorial job at the elementary school. He's quiet, has a tendency to crack a tall can for breakfast, and isn't initially a particularly good role model to Sam (Ryder Allen), the young neighbour who Vivian takes in after his drug-addicted mom (Juno Temple) runs off.

As Palmer adjusts to life back in his small Louisiana hometown, Vivian dies suddenly, leaving him to look after Sam until his mom comes back (if she ever does). All of a sudden, Palmer's life is full of bubble baths and playdates, which are in stark contrast to his sullen, macho moodiness.

Palmer sticks to fairly predictable territory. We've seen this kind of "reluctant father" narrative play out time and again — think About a Boy, Big Daddy, or the recent The Midnight Sky — and the film hits all the predictable beats as Palmer goes from stoic to paternal. His budding romance with Sam's nurturing teacher, Maggie (Alisha Wainwright), is similarly by-the-numbers, as are the ways he sometimes falls back into his destructive old ways.

Even if Palmer feels a little sanitized, it's well-acted enough to make up for it. Timberlake may not have the grit to make him a very plausible ex-con, but he brings the quiet charm and effortless charisma required to make him sympathetic. And Ryder Allen is instantly loveable as Sam, a young boy who wears hair clips and loves princesses — something that brings out homophobia in his peers and occasional gender policing in Palmer. It's heart-warming to see how he retains his sunny individuality despite being neglected at home and bullied at school.

It's impossible not to root for Palmer and Sam every step of the way, even if you'll probably have a pretty good idea of how things are going to play out.

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